I have no favorite catfish species, whether in the catching or in the eating. Just as each species is unique in the challenges it presents in finding and catching it, so does each species we take home bring to the table its own unique qualities.
Catfish are special, though. They are particularly firm fleshed, so they work well in most recipes and forms of cooking, from chowders to classic deep frying. Admittedly, catfish from some water may taste strong, but this phenomenon isn't common; most times, they're sweet as can be, at least in smaller sizes. Flatheads, much to my distress, for I believe most large flatheads should be released to continue to thrill anglers, are an exception. Large and small, they taste great. Indeed, in my estimation, flatheads easily rank among the finest of all freshwater fish on the table.
The issue of the contaminants that catfish may harbor is distressing. Scientist and Field Editor Larry Cofer talks about this issue in another article in this magazine. Basically, smaller catfish usually are younger fish and therefore harbor fewer contaminants, another reason to keep small fish and release most larger fish. Some contaminants also are bound in greater quantity in the fattiest parts of catfish — the belly meat and the reddish (on flatheads) or whitish or yellowish (blue cats and channels) tissue on the outside of fillets, particularly along the lateral line. This tissue also is strong tasting and should be trimmed from fillets. Again, though, the flathead is an exception. The belly meat of a flathead usually tastes great.
Catfish care is important. Evidence exists that catfish that are roughly handled after they're caught will be less tasty than fish that are well cared for. To keep fish alive until they're cleaned, a livewell's best, or some sort of keep sack, if you're fishing from shore. A stringer works, too, but probably stresses fish more than livewells and keep sacks, although I don't know this for sure.
Fish bruise, though, and bruised flesh doesn't taste good, so handle fish gently. If a fish dies, it should immediately be placed on ice, unless it's cold outside. If you're fishing during extremely cold weather, on the other hand, take care not to let your catch freeze. When fish flesh freezes, the individual muscle cells expand and often burst. Thawed fish is therefore "weepy," limper, and of slightly diminished taste by comparison to unfrozen fish. Fish should be frozen only once, immediately after they're cleaned, then stored until thawed and eaten.
I have long recommended that anglers bleed catfish while the fish are still alive. This can be done just before they're cleaned at the cleaning station. Or, if fish are to be placed on ice, bleeding can take place on shore or in the boat, just before the fish is placed on ice. Blood in flesh somewhat diminishes the taste of some fish. Blood also increases the chance for spoilage when cleaned fish are kept several days before being eaten. The other objective is beautiful pearly white fillets. Bleed fish by sticking them in the heart with a knife. Insert the knife between the pectoral fins and cut forward until blood flows. Wait a minute or two, then konk the fish on the head to kill it before cleaning.
A freshly cleaned catfish that's properly iced and kept at temperatures just above freezing will retain its quality for three or four days. Otherwise the fish should be frozen. Catfish that are properly packaged for the freezer may retain their quality for four months and perhaps up to a half year. Once again, however, flatheads seem to retain their quality longer than blues and channels.
One of the best freezing methods is to use a freezer-rated zipper-style bag. Lay a meal of catfish fillets neatly on one another in the bag, then add just enough water to cover the fillets. Now zip the bag until it's almost sealed and proceed to squeeze all the air from the bag. This can be accomplished by squeezing until only water's coming out of the bag. Immediately zip the bag the rest of the way shut. Use as little water in the bag as you can. Water expands when it freezes. Too much water crushes fillets and makes them weepier than they need to be when they're thawed.
Most of the anglers I know eat most of their catfish panfried or deep-fried after being dusted or dipped. You probably have favorite commercial batters you've discovered over the years. I do too. I will mention one, House-Autry Mills, which produces some of the best products I've found. The batter mixes are as good as any on the planet. And their hushpuppy and biscuit products are superb, too. House-Autry is in Newton Grove, North Carolina, 800/849-0802, .
Creating your own mixes is easy, though. One simple dusting mix is 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup corn meal, a teaspoon salt, a teaspoon pepper, and perhaps a pinch of cayenne pepper. Add whatever spices you want, say a teaspoon of lemon pepper in place of the regular pepper. Pat the fish portions dry with a paper towel, dip them in milk and dust them.
A good deep-frying batter consists of one cup flour, one teaspoon sugar, one teaspoon baking powder, plus two eggs and 1/2 to 3/4 cup water (or beer or 7-Up). Mix the batter so it just barely drips slowly from a spoon. Pat the fish portions dry with a paper towel before dipping them. Pause to let excess batter drip from the fish before slipping individual portions into hot oil. For fish that have been frozen, I like to add a pinch of cayenne pepper and one-half teaspoon chili powder to the mix.
For many of us, the essence of fishing is to see fillets from fish we have caught and cleaned hit the pan with a care born of lives that have taught us how lucky we are to be able to partake of the bounty of the lakes, rivers, and reservoirs that surround us. Furthermore, harvested selectively, not only are catfish nutritious and delicious, but also are a renewable resource, here today and for generations to come.
Cleaning a Catfish Step 1
After bonking the fish on the head to kill it, remove the cheeks.
Cleaning a Catfish Step 2
Turn the fish over and make an incision as shown. Then make another incision straight down the belly of the fish to the anal vent.
Cleaning a Catfish Step 3
Remove the pectoral muscles.
Cleaning a Catfish Step 4
Remove the belly flaps.
Cleaning a Catfish Step 5
Turn the fish back over and remove the major portion of fillet meat on each side of the spine.
(Note: This fish was delivered dead and on ice to Doug Stange. Dead fish can't be bled, thus the quantity of blood in the flesh as this fish is cleaned.)