I figure this forum is the proper place to discuss the oft cussed sea catfishes, both hardheads and gafftopsail.
These fishes have always been repudiated by fishermen as trash, for whatever reasons. In fact, the sea catfishes I am catching in Florida are excellent eating. :002: The FL Dept of Agriculture did a scientific taste test with fresh hardhead fillets and the results were that the flesh is 'good' to 'excellent' in all cases. Depends somewhat on the recipe, naturally.
Sea catfish range from New Jersey to Mexico. I would like comments from BOC members who have first hand knowledge (not just passing on the old line) of the taste of these cats from other areas, where the bottoms may be different.
We have gone through the development of other known "trash" fish. Several that come to mind are Snook, Amberjack, Redfish, Monkfish etc. The fact is, we had so many other quality fish to choose from in the old days, we could afford to discard whole species for whatever reason. "They taste like soap", "They are jacks, and have a strong taste", "Drum are no good, too much red meat", and now "They are slimy and a stick from their fins will ruin your day" have been the mantras for these fishes.
The problem with giving sea catfishes a free pass is that they are thriving in huge numbers entirely in our estuaries, and they eat the juveniles of many of our desirable sport and food fishes.:too_sad: From firsthand experience with cleaning many thousands of them, I will tell you that of all the gafftopsail cats that had food in their stomachs, 99% had eaten a blue crab. That was from fish caught in the lower end of the Myakka river. So, I extrapolate that it cannot be healthy to allow catfishes to proliferate untouched while all the other stocks are seeing so much pressure.
Add the fact that consumers are having a harder and harder time obtaining real fresh, local seafood and you can see why I am determined to see folks give these delicious fish a try. How many times have you caught nothing you could take home to eat, while tossing back sea catfish.
I want us to put the eating back into family fishing! NO MORE FREE PASS FOR SEA CATFISHES!
I've never seen or caught one here in NC, but a buddy of mine that's got family in Fla. has told me about catching them in numbers and always said they were good eating. But that's as close as I've seen them.
Honestly Ihave never eaten either of them, but here in SC I have always heard that while the Gafftops are good to eat, the hardheads taste like crud.
May just be a local prejuduce like many other things (mullet are relished in SW Fla, but are nothing but bait in most other areas), or maybe thier diet in our muddy area is bad for their taste. The hardheads eat mostly fish and crustaceans while hardheads eat any crud lying around - sea cucumbers, worms, anything...
Interestingly, in our area (SC) something went around in the last 10 years that killed off almost all of our hardheads and many of the gafftops. The SC DNR even went so far as to protect them from harvest last year!
I should add that sea catfishes go thru a spawning cycle and, much like mullet and sheephead, their meat becomes poor afterward. The spawn occurs in the summer (May thru August)for both species. Sea catfishes are mouth breeders, meaning the male holds the eggs, and later the fry, in his mouth for several weeks, so he does not eat for over a month. The flesh can be noticably leaner and generally poor in spawners. You can see the difference when you clean them, once you are doing it a little while.
I can imagine that if a person were to try sea catfish for the first time during this post spawn period, he may find the flesh less appealing in taste, texture and appearance.
The fish harvested during the winter and spring months will be fat, solid and more tasty.
Also, the larger Gafftopsail cats have a dark vein running down the outside center of the fillets. That shoud be trimmed out for folks who want the bland taste, as it can be "fishy" tasting. The Hardheads have no such vein.
In general, the hardheads are considered better eating, probably for this reason.
Have any of you folks that have caught these fish (I haven't-Kansas) seen what the inside of their skull looks like?
Here's a picture of a plaque with a Gafftop Catfilsh's skull mounted to it. It was made by "Scout" Randall Duhon, a long time BOC member. He also sent me a couple of the skulls, Look at it REAL close, who/what do you see? It's very interesting.
Randall, hope you don't mind I posted it.
Fishing the coastal marshes We catch beau coup of both Gafftops(sail cats) and Hardheads. Gafftops in the early summer tend to be in more open water areas and will follow schooling specks(speckled trout ) and white trout. They actually fight well and larger ones, 6-8lbs will make runs like small redfish. we really don't mind catching them. The big drawback is they will slime the dickens out of an icechest and everything else .Most folks will box them if nothing else is biting because they make such a mess . Their skin is a little tougher than their fresh water cousins blues etc. Instead of skinning them I use an electric filet knifes starting at the head going to the tail,flipping it and then cutting along the back bone. The process is repeated on the other side of the fish. The meat is good and fries just like freshwater cats. Larger gafftops we will often "steak" to make a courtbouillion.
"Hardheads" in my humble opinion is a whole beast. The head alone takes up almost 1/2 of the total length of the fish. The dorsal and pectoral barbs do not retract and cause nasty infections if pricked. They seem to eat anything. The meat is much bloodier- coarse and has an ammonia flavor.
We have so many other desirable species . We don't keep "hardheads" We catch and cut the line instead of bringing them aboard-particularly when children are around. If we start catching hardheads we'll pickup and move to another spot-.
Below is the opinion of Executive Chef Justin Timineri, who works on staff at the FL Dept of Agriculture.
> Dan, thank you for sending us the hardhead catfish to work with, I think it is a great product. I tried to do as little to the fish as possible, so we could really get the flavor of the fish itself. The taste is great, no fishy flavor, nice and light flesh. The texture was perfect; it stayed together during cooking, yet was tender and juicy. I loved the reddish color of the flesh before cooking. It did shrink up a little more than I had anticipated. The only limitation I see with this fish is the fillet size, but clever marketing and placement can use this to your advantage. All in all I think this product has a great future. Marketing points to consider are: Consumers are concerned with how the harvesting techniques affect the environment? Do you know what the fishing techniques will be to catch this fish in large quantities? These are questions that a lot of chefs and consumers in Florida are asking about their food supply. And not just seafood, but land animals and ve
getables also. I feel this is very important when deciding how to market a new species to domestic and foreign markets. I am planning a second round of cooking with the frozen fillets, to compare them with the fresh samples. I would be happy to create some really unique recipes with this fish that play on its strengths. Let me know what your thoughts are, and maybe we can arrange a phone conference to further discuss taste and texture. Thanks. Justin
Redfishman, Thank you for your input. You did not say where you do your fishing. That would help, perhaps explaining why your experience with hardheads has been such. How many hardheads have you eaten?
I have never noticed any coarse texture or ammonia smell. Neither have the scientists, much of whose research I have studied. Don`t want to be confrontational, just want to break the mantras. Professional guides, such as yourself perhaps, are the most influential voice in the recreational fisheries.
Here is the biological page on sea cats from the Louisiana Sea Grant website. Note at the bottom what their research has shown on edibility.
Sea Cat, Tourist Trout
Range & Habitat:
Gulfwide, in all nearshore waters and saline and brackish estuarine waters. It is also occasionally found in fresh water. It tends to move from shallower to deeper waters in the winter months.
Identification & Biology:
The hardhead catfish is colored dirty gray with a white underside. No scales are present on the skin. Four barbels are found under the chin and two more at the corners of the mouth. It does not have the elongated extensions on the dorsal and pectoral fins that the gafftopsail catfish has. The hardhead catfish has hard, sharp, venomous spines in its dorsal and pectoral fins and should be handled with care.
Hardhead catfish eat virtually anything, including algae, pieces of plants, worms, snails, clams, microscopic zooplankton, marine shrimp, grass shrimp, blue crabs, mud crabs, insects, spiders, small fish, smaller hardhead catfish, hermit crabs, fish bones, mud, sand, and even scales actively taken from living fish. Because they are so common, it is often assumed that they produce a lot of eggs. Actually, each female produces only 14 to 64 mature eggs each season. After the male fertilizes the eggs, he holds them in his mouth until they hatch, and for a time thereafter. Spawning takes place from May to September in shallow marine bays and lakes.
Usually 1 pound or less, but may reach 3 pounds.
Seldom eaten, but it is very good table fare, better than the gafftopsail catfish.