Catfish have been a staple of Arkansas cuisine throughout recorded history. Native Americans ate them, as did European explorers and the earliest settlers. In fact, our hankering for delicious catfish has done nothing but grow, with catfish now among the most popular food fish, not only in Arkansas, but nationwide.
One reason for their popularity is the fact that these whiskered warriors are abundant in lakes, rivers and ponds statewide. Three species are commonly targeted by Natural State anglers: channel catfish, blue cat and flathead, all of which are delicious.
While different species are similar in flavor, connoisseurs agree that distinctive differences can make one type preferable over another for particular diners. In some cases, physical differences between species and size classes also necessitate differing means of preparation.
These things being so, let’s look individually at each species and its unique qualities. Knowing the differences will enable you to savor to the fullest these delectable freshwater fishes.
Let’s begin our discussion with the most popular, widespread, abundant member of the family, the channel cat. Blue cats and flatheads grow much larger, but when it comes to popularity polls, these heavyweights can’t hold a candle to their cousin. The channel catfish ranks just behind largemouth bass in popularity, and everywhere a channel cat swims, it is targeted by devoted anglers.
Channel cats inhabit everything from city ponds, gravel-bottomed creeks and muddy bayous to vast man-made reservoirs, natural lakes and big delta rivers. They can tolerate extreme conditions better than many fish, but they do not, as many people think, prefer living in turbid, poor-quality waters. Channel catfish are healthiest in clean, warm, well-oxygenated water.
In the cases where channel catfish are caught in extremely muddy, hot or polluted waters, it is likely the flesh will have a poor taste. The same is true with other species of catfish. It is best, therefore, to concentrate fishing efforts where water quality is good, and keep the catch alive or on ice until prepared for eating. I love the flaky white meat of all channel cats caught and cared for in this manner, but the best-tasting channel cats I’ve eaten were caught from icy cold lakes and ponds and cooked fresh from the water over a campfire!
Although they grow much larger, blue catfish resemble channel cats in appearance and flavor. In fact, I once bet a friend $50 he couldn’t distinguish a fried blue cat fillet from a fried channel cat fillet in a blind taste test. My buddy always said a fat blue cat was better eating than any channel cat. But with a blindfold on and two plates of channel cat fillets in front of him to sample (yes, just channel cats), he stated emphatically that plate No. 1 must indeed be blue cat because of its distinctively better flavor. I graciously accepted payment of the wager.
Healthy populations of blue cats usually contain numerous individuals up to 10 pounds. Larger, older fish are much less common, but in some prime waters, catching several 20- to 40-pound blues in a day is not unusual. Blues exceeding 50 pounds are scarce, but more and more anglers enjoy targeting these big, hard-hitting trophies.
So what about those larger blue cats? Are they good to eat? I am often asked that and always reply the same. Yes, they are delicious, a fact I confirmed many times in my younger, more ignorant days when I kept and ate every catfish I caught. Now I encourage fellow catfish anglers to practice restrictive harvest. Keep smaller fish to eat, and release larger catfish so they continue growing and provide trophy-fishing opportunities. I personally draw the line at 5 pounds. The fillets and steaks I eat come from smaller, more abundant blue cats. Same with channel cats and flatheads.
The flathead catfish is a brute of a fish, muscular and streamlined, but ugly by all standards. Despite its ugliness, however, flatheads are very popular sportfish because they grow large and fight hard. And when a mess of fish for the dinner table is wanted, the abundance of small flatheads in many Arkansas waters makes it a cinch to load a cooler with “eaters.”
Many anglers believe a 1- to 5-pound flathead has a delectable flavor far superior to other catfish. I cannot say for sure why this should be, but flatheads scavenge much less than their brethren, preferring live foods like sunfish and crawdads to the meals of dead fish or detritus that blue and channel cats hastily devour. Perhaps it is this difference in diet that gives flatheads a taste many of us find much sweeter and flavorful. To me, it’s like the difference between a fillet basted in butter during cooking and one that is not. The former titillates the taste buds in ways the latter cannot.
To heighten this savoriness, one should do two things when preparing a flathead or other catfish for cooking. First, before skinning, use a rope or nail to hang the fish head up from a support above a 5-gallon bucket. Then cut off the tail. Blood will pour from a vein, thus “bleeding out” the fish, an endeavor that produces whiter, better-tasting meat. The first time I tasted wild catfish prepared this way, I was amazed at the marked improvement in flavor.
Second, after you skin the fish, use a sharp knife to remove all dark-red flesh along the fish’s sides. This meat has a disagreeable flavor, and contaminants that may be in the water concentrate there. Get rid of it, and the catfish not only tastes better; it’s also healthier to eat.
Some final notes
For some folks, frying is the only way to cook a catfish. There’s no tastier method of preparation, so why bother with anything else? Case closed.
Truth is, versatility is one of the catfish’s greatest assets. Serve it fried, smoked, poached, baked, broiled, braised, sautéed or barbecued. Or combine it with other foods for casseroles or chowders. Catfish can be eaten in a sandwich, salad, pizza or omelet. You’re limited only by your imagination.
The biggest mistake to avoid is overcooking. Catfish is naturally tender and cooks quickly. It’s done when it flakes easily with a fork. If you wait for it to float in hot oil, you’ve probably cooked away natural moisture and destroyed much of the fish’s unique flavor. When deep-frying, heat the oil to 365 to 370 degrees — no hotter. The old “throw a match in the oil and wait till it lights” trick rarely results in proper frying temperature. Use a cooking thermometer to get it right or a deep-fryer that can be set at the correct heat.