Unlike a bass, which gulp down live bait or ambush an artificial lure, catfish like to tease a fisherman. That rascal will nibble at the bait just a little, sometimes pulling on it without clamping down.
It’s at this point when an experienced fisherman sets the hook and lands a fish that’s fun to catch and even more fun to eat.
Some folks love to eat catfish but won’t catch their own because they’ve previously met the business end of that sharp, boney dorsal fin or the equally lethal pectoral fins. I deal with those fins by holding the fish from the hook in its mouth then sliding my other hand up its back until I can lock my fingers around and between all three fins. I then quickly clip off the fins with catfish skinning pliers.
Georgia has a variety of catfish, including brown and yellow bullheads, flatheads, channel cats and blue cats. Unless you’re fishing the Altamaha, you’re most likely to catch bullheads around these parts. They’re not as big as flatheads, channel and blue cats, but they’re good. They’re all good, although flatheads sometimes have a muddy taste.
My favorite keeper-size catfish are about 12-18 inches long. Catfish that are longer than 18 inches are sometimes a little tough and don’t taste much like a catfish. I won’t bother filleting one that’s smaller than 10-12 inches. If it’s smaller than six inches long, I throw it back. After I’ve skinned, headed, gutted and washed them, I score or fillet my catfish then prep them for cooking.
I prefer my catfish fried, but I’ll eat them grilled or broiled or as the main ingredient of a stew. A friend of mine, Jennifer Scales, recently brought some catfish stew that she’d just made by my office. It was delicious. She told me she sautéed some white onions and green onions in a large pan then added chunks of farm-raised catfish. The only seasoning she added was some lemon-pepper and salt. Jennifer serves her catfish stew over a bed of white rice. As I said, it was delicious. She admitted she goes light on the seasonings, which was OK because I always add a little hot sauce anyway.
Some restaurants that feature what they call catfish stew would more accurately call it soup. Their catfish stew includes onions and seasonings, along with a lot of broth plus taters, tomatoes, corn and okra. It’s like a soupy gumbo. Some of it is pretty good. Others need a little help from Texas Pete or Tony Chachere’s Creole Seasoning.
When I fry catfish, I start with House Autry Mills Seafood Breader. To that, I mix a little all-purpose flour because I prefer light breading. I also mix some Creole seasoning, and maybe a little extra black pepper in the breading. I don’t wash my whole catfish or fillets in an egg/milk mix as that makes the breading cake up. I want to taste catfish, not batter.
When they’re available and I can afford them, I fix some wild Georgia shrimp to go with my catfish. The freshwater fish and saltwater shellfish just seem to go together. After I’ve peeled and deveined the shrimp, I roll each one in the same breading mix as the catfish. The shrimp actually take a little longer to cook than the fish, so I fix them first. That also gives me something to sample while my catfish are frying to a crispy, golden brown in a large iron skillet or my wife’s deep fryer. The aroma of shrimp and catfish frying is one of life’s simple pleasures, ranking right up there with my wife’s smile or a hug from one of my grandbabies.
This catfish and shrimp combo is served with cheese grits, cole slaw and hushpuppies. Because the guests of honor are fried, it’s probably not what the food police would call healthy, but that’s irrelevant. I eat what I like — in moderation, of course. Catfish, though, are one of those food items where moderation means all-you-can-eat.
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