Once you get passed their Linnaean binomen, fish names start to get a little confusing.
They include lots of regionalism, lots of little local names or family names, old names that no one else outside of your particular backwoods or holler or cove or bay or river bottom has ever heard of. What you call bluegill, I call brim. What you call an Eisenhower, I call a yellow perch. It’s the Tower of Babel all over again.
For sheer nomenclatural confusion, however, one fish stands out. It’s one of the most popular freshwater fish in America, and certainly the most populous. Everybody catches them, but no one can seem to figure out what to call them. I’m talking about Ictalurus punctatus. To me and mine, it’s better known as the government cat, but can also be found under the name of spotted cat, willow cat, fiddler, lady cat, graceful catfish, forked-tail cat, or (perhaps its most famous alias) the channel cat.
The profusion of names is indicative of its wide dispersal; you can catch one of these little fellers almost anywhere in the lower 48 and up into Canada. The name I grew up calling it, government cat, comes from a federal fish stocking program in the 50s and 60s that distributed these pretty little fish far and wide among the ponds and creeks of Georgia.
Similar programs existed throughout much of the south, including Texas, where the channel cat became, according to the TPWD, the third most popular freshwater game fish in the state (ranking only behind largemouth bass and crappie).
The ubiquity of this fish masks its uniqueness. The channel catfish is a survivor, well-adapted to its particular niche and lifestyle. Preferring to live in sluggish waters, the channel catfish hunts for food in silty and overgrown bottoms, preferring insect larvae, small fish, and just about anything else they can hunt up.
Most of their hunting is done in very low light conditions, in muddy water or at night, and as such the channel catfish has evolved some remarkable sensory apparatuses to help it find food and communicate.
Along with their characteristic whiskers, catfish possess a remarkable sense of taste. In fact, their body is covered in taste buds, allowing the catfish to sense subtle chemical changes in the water column.
In addition to sensing food particles or prey, catfish also use their sense of taste to communicate. Slight changes in the chemistry of the abundant mucus that covers their body provides a catfish’s neighbors with detailed information regarding an individual’s gender, health, fertility, and position with the catfish social hierarchy.
You can add to their delicate array of chemoreceptors a keen sense of hearing, despite not having much in the way of a visible ear. Because their bodies are the same density as the water they live in, their entire body senses vibrations in their environment.
Anyone who has every fished for catfish can vouch for the sensitivity of their hearing; a slight adjustment of your footing on the bank or in the boat can send that catfish nibbling at your bait splashing away in a heartbeat.
Down in the Deep South, when people said they were “going fishing” you generally took it to mean that they were going fishing specifically for catfish. If they planned to try for something else, bluegill or perch, say, then they’d usually make that clear.
“Going perch fishing” or “gonna try and get some brim” they’d say, walking out the door; otherwise, the default quarry was always “catfish,” requiring no specific qualifier or indicator. And it was a noble endeavor, too, because as far as southern fish go, catfish are simply the best.
The catfish’s reliance on taste and smell in the water means that they generally prefer strongly scented bait. Chicken livers almost always got pretty good results, although my grandfather swore by chunks of smoked sausage (which he usually bought cheap off the back of a truck out behind the Piggly Wiggly). And, of course, the only true way to fish for catfish is with a cane pole. Anything else is trifling.
What makes catfishing fun is the fish’s playfulness. They want to eat, for sure, but they don’t know if they want to eat your bait specifically. Maybe just a nibble, a little taste. Maybe one more. They’ll pop the bait into their mouth, drag the bobber under for a brief, heart-stopping second before changing their mind, then spit it out and send the float back to the surface.
They’re wriggly, too, and a hook even slightly un-set will generally come loose. That’s probably why the cane pole is the best tool for the job; you need to have as little between you and the fish as possible in order to land one.
Just like the catfish, you need to get all your senses attuned to the invisible activity just below the surface.
Cleaning catfish is a challenge too. For my money, they’re the worst things in the world to clean. Scaleless, you’ve got to peel their slick, mucusy skin off in long, bloody strips with a pair of sharp pliers. It’s not work for the fainthearted, and a solid dozen catfish makes for a messy afternoon.
And, of course, there’s always the tetanus-harboring spike on the dorsal fin, a sharp spiny needle ready to spear the unwary handler. It’s almost like they don’t want to be eaten.
Of course, all that work is well worth it; good catfish is ambrosia, a perfect blend of meaty texture and delicate flavor unsurpassed in the freshwater world. I know some folks find catfish muddy, and that is always a possibility. Everyone I’ve ever heard say that, though, has been eating river catfish, which I think might have something to do with it.
Frankly, as polluted as the rivers in this country are, I imagine a muddy flavor is the least of your worries. I catch my cats exclusively from ponds, preferably the one out back of my folks’ house in south Georgia, and I’ve never found them to be anything but sweet.
The traditional way to eat catfish is breaded and fried. For my money, a good cornmeal breading is the best, but other folk’s opinions vary, I’m sure. And while it is both traditional and delicious, I sometimes feel that people often miss out on just how versatile catfish is as an ingredient. Here’s my favorite ways to eat catfish, with an emphasis on the fish’s native sweetness and simplicity of technique.
Sumac Catfish Grilled in Grape Leaves
What You Need
Some catfish chunks (pieces of fillet 1-2 inches long), sumac, grape leaves, a grill, and some beer (for you).
What to Do
1) Coat your catfish chunks in sumac. Sumac is a purplish red powder with a complex, lemony taste, often used in Turkish and Middle Eastern cooking. It’s fairly common, but if you have trouble finding it, hunt up a Middle Eastern grocery store or a halal market, and I’m sure you’ll find it.
2) Well-coated in sumac-y goodness, place your catfish piece in the center of a grape leaf, and wrap it up tightly. Grape leaves are pickled, and they have a toothsome bite and are slightly sour. They are used (again) in Turkish or Greek cooking; you can find them at almost any grocery store.
3) Toss them onto the oiled surface of a hot grill, and cook ’em up. Timing depends on how thick your catfish pieces are, but I think you’ll generally need about 3 to 5 minutes on a side. A bit of charring on the grape leaves is actually pretty tasty, so don’t get worried if you start seeing them blacken up. When they’re done, pull em off and eat them with some nice, sour yogurt, leaf and all. They’re delicious, and the catfish has enough meatiness and flavor to hold up to the sumac and the heat without going all mushy.
What’s your favorite way to prepare catfish?
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