These so-called, “trash fish” deserve a chance to impress you.
I confess, I’m a trash fish fan. Maybe I like being different. Maybe my environmental background compels me to find a use for things others don’t appreciate and even throw away. Maybe I’m just weird! But I know there are others who are just as weird as I when it comes to loving the unloved fish.
I suggest you expand your horizons this fishing season and reconsider your opinion of these so-called trash fish.
Gar can be found in the eastern two-thirds of the United States, but are most common in the east and south, and most abundant in warmer waters. The five species in the U.S. are longnose gar, shortnose gar, spotted gar, Florida gar, and alligator gar. Gar have a bad, but undeserved, reputation. Because they are toothy critters, many anglers believe them to be fish-killing machines. They are pretty good at catching small forage fish, but these primitive fish aren’t a threat to sport fish populations.
What’s to like about gar? Spectacular jumps when hooked. Not always, but often enough that my buddy and I call them “Tuttle Creek Tarpon,” named for a local lake that has a good gar population. And they are tasty. Alligator gar get big, so they are most commonly eaten, but longnose gar get large enough to eat as well.
Because they swipe at prey with their beaks, they aren’t easy to hook. Some anglers use a frayed rope to entangle the teeth to increase their catch rate, and it works, but makes catch and release harder. A lively minnow makes an excellent gar bait for conventional anglers. Fly rod anglers need to throw a woolly bugger or other streamer and work it slowly in promising areas, or if you can sight fish, cast so the fly passes less than a foot in front of the beak.
Gar meat can be fried, just like any other fish. The real challenge is cleaning a gar. They have hard, ganoid, scales that have to be cut off with tin snips or a heavy knife. Once skinned, the most meat is along the backbone. Just be careful when cleaning your gar (and throwing away the carcass), as the eggs are toxic to mammals.
2. Freshwater Drum
If there is a fish with family issues, it is the drum. They are the only freshwater member of a family that is certainly appreciated, if not revered, by saltwater anglers. From the croakers used for bait to the highly-prized redfish and speckled trout, the drum’s family is an important one. But the freshwater member of the family rarely gets any love from anglers. Maybe it should start using its Cajun name – gaspergou. At least it sounds exotic.
Drum have many admirable qualities, including eating zebra mussels in those lakes where that invasive species is a problem. They are hard-fighting fish that will take a number of baits and lures. Crayfish tails are a great bait to target drum, but minnows and worms fished near the bottom work well, too. Artificial lures can be effective on drum as well. I once wore myself out catching drum on light blue crappie jigs in Texas. Fly anglers should work crayfish patterns in rocky areas.
The flesh of a drum is a bit firmer than many other freshwater fish. I’ve heard some folks even use a small cookie cutter to make fake scallops from the flesh. I think they are great eating any way they are fixed, but you should trim away the dark meat near the skin. It takes a good sized fish to get decent fillets because drum are skinny across the back, so you should probably toss back any drum under about three pounds.
If you’ve eaten the baked fish in one of the common buffet-style cafeterias in America, you’ve probably eaten buffalo fish. In fact, the smallmouth buffalo is the most commonly sold commercial fish in America.
Buffalo can be very difficult to catch, as most species feed primarily on vegetative matter like algae. But when you do hook one, they can be great fighters. They also grow very large, so if you can find some buffalo that are willing to bite, you could tangle with a 20-pound fish. Try doughballs or corn fished on or very near the bottom, and don’t go too big with your hook size.
Obviously, most buffalo are good eating fish, or they wouldn’t be commercially harvested. As members of the sucker family, they are rather bony. Some people pressure cook and can them, others fillet and score them to allow the oil to soften any small bones when deep frying, and they are pretty good smoked.
Hands down, the carp is my favorite underappreciated fish. They can be found in lakes, streams, and rivers and provide challenging fishing from the Wyoming lakes to downtown Denver’s Platte River to Lake Michigan’s Traverse Bay, and many points between and beyond.
They grow big and they aren’t too difficult to catch. Conventional anglers can use doughballs or corn, and if you can find an automated fish feeder, you’ll probably have success. As a fly angler, I love that carp can be sight fished. They require a stealthy stalk and a perfectly placed cast. Crawfish, leech and large nymph patterns will all work on fish in a feeding mood.
Carp are brutal fighters when hooked, so if you’re looking for a serious tug on your line, they are worth some attention. Our fellow anglers in Europe have been on board with carp as a sport fish for decades. Carp are also one of the most widely eaten fish worldwide, and there are plenty of people who appreciate them as table fare here in America. Scored and fried, baked, or in chowder are some of the more popular ways to prepare carp.
These four fish get a bad rap but are actually some of the tastiest, and fun to catch, fish out there. Don’t hate these fish and try catching them sometime.