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To catch this fish, put hand in mouth, hang on – and pull

Where I live out here on the Upper Mississippi, the local French name for the flathead catfish is “goujon.” An awesome creature, the goujon has a heavy head, tiny eyes and several pairs of the fleshy whiskers that give the catfish its name. Its rubbery skin is a mottled, yellow-brown color. Unlike some other catfish that are content to scavenge for much of their food, this one is said to be primarily a meat eater that prefers living prey. big ones, and the goujon may reach 100 pounds or more, are usually loners. They hang out in deep holes under log drifts or cutbanks–lurking there during the day and prowling into shallows at night to hunt other fish.

A Mississippi fisherman lifting his trotline–a lone line hung with baited hooks–may feel a deep, heavy surge. He pulls the boat along the line, cutting off hooks as he goes, for it is not well to be snagged on a trotline with a 70-pound goujon. Slowly, carefully, he raises the heavy line. A broad, unspeakably ugly head breaks the surface. The huge fish is not hooked, however. It is simply holding a channel catfish that was hooked, as a dog holds a bone. Man and goujon exchange a long look and then the giant releases the smaller fish and sinks out of sight–leaving the fisherman with a three-pound channel cat whose skin has been deftly stripped away.

Spectacular though it may be, the goujon is not particularly unusual as catfish go. There are groups of bigger fish and littler fish, stranger fish, more beautiful fish and even uglier fish. But in no other group of fish does so much beauty and ugliness come together as in the catfish clan. Altogether it comprises more than 2,000 species. Many of them are considered quite good to eat and that’s part of the reason why my neighbors and I have spent so much time and energy over the years trying to catch them.

Nowadays, however, there is a more reliable way to obtain catfish meat. Instead of catching the fish, some 400 entrepreneurs in Mississippi and hundreds of others elsewhere in the Deep South are growing them–on farms. Last year, U.S. catfish farms sent an estimated 138 million pounds of fish to market–38 percent more than the yar before. “The business is growing tremendously,” says Florida aquaculture expert Dr. John Ryther. At the Catfish Farmers of America, a trade association headquartered in Jackson, Mississippi, staff members think the potential is unlimited. “Aquaculutre is the wave of the future,” says Mary Kelly, “and catfish farming is on the leading edge of it.”

Most catfish grown on farms weigh only a couple of pounds or less. That hardly compares with the heavyweight champion catfish of North America, the blue, which is sometimes called a “fulton” or “blue fulton” along the Mississippi. This was surely the kind of catfish that Mark Twain reported as weighing 250 pounds–although fish always grow bigger in the pilothouses of riverboats than in the Mississippi itself. Over on the Missouri River, the late “Steamboat Bill” Heckman, an old river pilot, told of a 315-pound catfish taken “just after the Civil War,” and said that catfish weighing up to 200 pounds were commonly caught from the Big Muddy during that period. Such huge catfish, however, always seem to escape official documentation.

One of the biggest on actual record is a 150-pound blue cat received by the Smithsonian’s National Museum in November 1879 from Dr. J. G. W. Steedman, chairman of the Missouri Fish Commission. The good doctor had bought the catfish in a fish market and in a letter to the U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, Professor Spencer F. Baird (who was also the second Secretary of the Institution), Dr. Steedman noted: “Your letter requesting the shipment to you of a large Mississippi Catfish was received this morning. Upon visiting our market this P.M. I luckily found two–one of 144 lbs., the other 150 lbs.

The latter I ship to you to-night by express.”

One of the early common names for these behemoths was “Mississippi catfish” because they are so partial to that river. They also tend to be southerly fish and are far more common in the Lower Mississippi than in the upper reaches.

The blue cat is a far more attractive creature than the flathead. A pale bluish-silver or light gunmetal in color, it is a well-favored fish, especially the smaller specimens, trim and streamlined from the deeply forked tail to modestly flattened head. The esthetics don’t extend to diet, though. Like the uglier flathead, which seems to prefer living prey, the blue cat will eat a variety of aquatic creatures–from fish, insects and crayfish to clams and mussels.

Big as it is, our great Mississippi cat is a middling fish compared to the huge sheatfish, or wels, of Eurasia. This hulking, voracious giant lives in various lakes and rivers in eastern Europe and western Asia. Individuals nearly 15 feet long and some weighing more than 600 pounds have been reported.

The wels is an odd-looking creature, even for a catfish, with the dorsal fin reduced to a tiny flag just behind the head and the extremely long anal fin almost merging with the caudal fin to give the fish an eel-like appearance. Like our flathead catfish, the wels is given to long periods of contemplation under overhanging banks or logs, a lethargic fish much of the time until it is triggered by prey. The largest welses are evidently capable, from the standpoint of both size and temperament, of attacking and eating almost anything else that might swim in their waters, and their eating habits are part of European folklore. There is at least one story of small child being swallowed whole by a large wels, and the fish are said to devour birds swimming at the surface.

Any large, strong fish may have some dangerous potential if it clouds the good sense of the fisherman, as large fish often do. In the catfish waters of mid-America there’s a homely practice called “noodling” in which the wading fisherman gropes under logs, driftwood piles and into deep holes in riverbanks that may be inhabited by large, grumpy, solitary catfish. The fisherman searches in such places until he touches a big goujon or blue, then carefully runs his hand into the fish’s great mouth and hauls it out of its lair.

This practice, illegal in a number of states, has never done much for me. I’ve grabbed things that bite and sting, but the prospect of blindly groping back into those tangled haunts of great, sullen fish, snapping turtles and water snakes isn’t an appealing one. There are persistent tales up and down the Mississippi of men having their arms broken while noodling big flatheads, or of being dragged back under a driftwood jam and held there and drowned. Apocryphal accounts, almost certainly, but thrusting one’s some confusion in the matter of who’d caught whom. The last such report I’ve heard concerned a man gigging fish with a spear around the edge of a Kansas reservoir. Late in the day, or perhaps at night, he had come across a very large flathead in shallow water. He had tied the end of the spear’s line around his waist and then speared the fish–one basic mistake soon compounded by another. As the story goes, they found the drowned man still roped to the dead catfish–a latter-day Captain Ahab and Moby Dick. High voltage and other nasty shocks

Africa’s electric catfish, a big, aggressive fish that may weigh more than 50 pounds, packs a punch of up to 800 volts. But the most fearsome reputation belongs to a tiny South American catfish. Included in the family Trichomycteridae are some parasitic catfish, which swim into gill chambers of larger fish, attack sensitive gill filaments and feed on blood. Among these species is a tiny candiru that inhabits streams and rivers in the Amazon basin. Usually less than two inches long, it is not regarded as a human parasite–at least not in the sense that it deliberately seeks out a host. But if a naked bather enters its natural habitat, it is said, the tiny catfish may swim into the unlucky person’s urethra. The fish’s dorsal fin is soft-rayed but its gill covers have spines. When the covers are flared, the spines engage and the tiny fish is anchored fimrly in place. The pain is agonizing, and surgey may be the only recourse.

Catfish in this country are not as dangerous as that, but some of them are venomous. Native species have a strong, sharp spine at the front of the dorsal fin, and a similar spine at the front of each pectoral fin. These spines are often serrate, needle-sharp, and can be covered with an irritating substance. Alarmed catfish can lock spines in erect positions by setting them in their sockets. In a lifetime of catching, handling and cleaning bullheads (“horned pouts” in the East) and channel catfish I have been “horned” or “spined” many times and it always hurts. I yelp, explete an expletive or two, and soon forget about it.

Even the little madtoms, including the stonecat, can be nasty. When you are horned by one of them, poison quickly finds its way into the wound. The effect of being horned by a madtom varies. At its least, it probably is like a stout beesting. At worst, it’s an almost electric jolt that produces a dull, throbbing ache that may last for hours. I like to think I have a charitable attitude. Things like skunks, eels, most snakes, ticks and leeches. But there are two i don’t like and never shall, and I make no bones about it–common water snakes and madtoms. They have hurt me too often, and the fact that it is always my fault doesn’t change things. Maybe I take madtoms more seriously than their size might seem to warrant, but I’m not alone in that. Some of the professional divers on our mid-western rivers who gather commercial shellfish don’t relish having any contact with these secretive, bottom-hugging madtoms.

The single pectoral and dorsal spines are typical catfish features, as are the several pairs of sensory barbels around a catfish’s mouth. Many catfish also have the fleshy adipose fin that is between the dorsal and the tail, or caudal fin. Some of these features may be absent in some catfish but there is one characteristic that they all have in common: no catfish has scales. There are those with naked skins, others with rows of spiny places, and even a few completely armored with overlapping shields. But no scales.

South America, as you might expect, has a rich variety of catfish fauna, including the armored cats, redtail cats (p. 61) and such gorgeous little ornamentals as the bronze, black-spotted, leopard, peppered and skunk corydoras. From Africa comes a little back-swimmer that starts out with the conventional dark back and light belly but takes to swimming upside down as it grows and ends up with a belly-colored back and back-colored belly. And from the Indian and Pacific Ocens comes the highly venomous striped catfish (p. 61). For years, large numbers of such strongly patterned, colored and even albino catfish have been imported for hobbyists. One of these, brought into Florida, was a moderate-size albino catfish from South-east Asia. Placed in outdoor holding tanks and ponds, this fish did something extraordinary. It simply left the ponds and walked away.

It was a catfish of the family Clariidae, able to breathe air and to slither its way across land. These “walking catfish” can stay out of water for hours. Moving overland and swimming up waterways, they have spread through most of the southern half of Florida. A bad reputation has spread with them–accounts of dogs and other pets being attacked and of valuable native game fishes being displaced. Many of the horror stories have been groundless, of course.

Biologist Paul Shafland, at the Boca Raton laboratory of Florida’s Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, is in charge of investigations of exotic fish that have been released in Florida waters. I asked him if the walking catfish is as bad as its popular reputation. Does it endanger native game fish? “From what we know,” Shafland replied, “it doesn’t pose as serious a threat to Florida’s largemouth bass as was feared. It’s competing with our native fish, sure. But we don’t have evidence that it’s the terrible threat to Florida waters that some of the press has thought.”

He paused a moment, and added: “Still, the walking catfish is an established, highly successful exotic species in southern Florida–and any successful exotic means that the energy flow through a native ecosystem has been altered in some way. Diverted, changed, diluted, something. This fish could be doing some subtle damage that we won’t understand for years.”

So much for the uglier, more dangerous and ill-favored of the catfish tribe. We come at last into the majestic presence of the regal channel catfish, Ictalurus punctatus, also known as the prairie trout or the fantastic fiddler, a trim, sagacious, freckle-flanked, clean-lined, fork-tailed wonder of a fish, and one of the best of all reasons for being a prairie kid with school just out and a shade-dappled creek close by. I call this the king cat. it resembles a small blue catfish but, unlike the fulton, the young channel cat has spots and flecks along its sides. The back is olive-brown or slaty blue tending into the silvery belly. The tail is deeply forked; the body graceful and sstrong. It is middle-size, as catfish go. I’ve never seen a channel catfish more than 16 pounds nor hooked one that weighed more than ten. The pole-and-line record is a 58-pound giant taken in a South Carolina reservoir, but comparing such a catfish with those in spring-fed, gravel-paved little rivers is like comparing a sumo wrestler with a world-class miler.

Channel catfish are simply that: catfish of the channels. They like moving water. I have also caught them in rock Quebec lakes while fishing for pike and brook trout, and in spring-fed Ozark creeks we catch equal numbers of channel catfish together with the lordly smallmouth bass. Channel cats eat just about everything

A scavenger as well as a predator, the channel cat is an omnivorous feeder that can find food by sight, and touch and taste with its fleshy barbels. The scope of its diet is infinite. With pole and line i have caught channel catfish on hooks baited with live minnows, frogs, grasshoppers, crickets, angleworms, crayfish, salamanders, fresh and sour chicken innards, cut bait, musel meats, horse leeches, Ivory soap, doughballs, cheese; and with artificial lures including streamer flies, spoons, spinners, jigs and deep-running plugs. In addition to nearly every sort of critter that lives in a stream, the truly hungry channel cat may also accept such diverse bankside offerings as wild grapes, elm seeds and other stuff that drops into the water.

Admittedly, some of the channel cat’s dietary items are a little rank. For years, one of my favorite catfish baits was a commercial concoction called, as I remember, LineBuster, a doughy abomination whose prime ingredient was undoubtedly very bad cheese. It was so bad it was beautiful, and had many diabolical uses–a bit of LineBuster smeared on the inside of a friend’s hatband in hot weather, for example, or a dab or two on the exhaust mainfold of the game warden’s car. Verily, an unguent for all seasons.

Channel cats can be strong, gamy fighters. If anything, though, the joy of catching a May catfish in a bright gravel riffle is transcended by the ineffable joy of eating same. It has a firm, rich, sweet flesh that has few equals among freshwater fish. Now, I happen to be an ardent fisher of trout. I admire the gallantry and uncompromsiing standards of wild trout, and applaud their choice of country. I am honored to join them in contest and, now and then, to eat them. And if they don’t fry up quite as well as prime channel cats, we must be chariable, for that’s a lot to ask of any fish.

This table quality, combined with the channel cat’s hardiness and thriftiness in converting food to flesh, has made it a natural for commercial fish farming. The heart of the industry is along the Mississippi, on the broad, flat floodplain between Memphis and Vicksburg, where more than 50,000 water acres of catfish farms are now in production.

We stopped by the little Mississippi town of Anguilla one heavy August day to visit Mr. Billy McKinney–banker, civic leader, catfish farmer and, in his words, “an old sharecropper.” There in his handsome, high-ceilinged office–part of a remodelled section of his grandfather’s old general store–he spoke of catfish. “In 1965 I happened to read a magazine article on the subject,” he said. “At the time I didn’t know of anyone else in these parts who was in the catfish business. But one day I got talking with friends over coffee and, well, I just decided to get into it.”

A successful farmer and chairman of the Bank of Anguilla, Billy McKinney isn’t the sort given to snap judgments or highly speculative enterprises. Yet the catfish game looked like a good one then–and time has confirmed his judgment. We drove out to McKinney’s catfish farm, a series of 29 rectangular ponds totalling roughly 360 water acres fed by six freshwater wells. A production pond may hold up to 8,000 pounds of fish whose efficiency in utilizing food is amazing. Catfish fry will double their weight each week for five or six weeks, and each pound of finished catfish costs only about 1.7 pounds of feed, which is better than hogs cna do, and four times as efficient as some cattle. The best time to sell is when the fish is under two years of age and weighs about 1-1/2 pounds; above that, their value is likely to decline because production cost increases. During a year of partial harvests, some

4,000 pounds of catfish are usually taken per production acre and shippedalive in water to a processor, where the fish are stunned with electricity and dressed. A dressed catfish brings about $2 per pound.

Catfish farming, liek any other kind of farming, has its hazards. In the past, fish production has out-stripped market outlets and some producers were hurt until the slack was taken up. Diving beetles and other predaceous insects can decimate the fish fry, and oxygen in the ponds must be monitored constantly to avoid a catastrophic depletion. There has been competition from Brazilian catfish, too; millions of pounds are being imported each year and continue to be sold well under the price of homegrown catfish. “And they’re pretty darned good eating, too,” admitted Billy McKinney.

“I’ve never eaten any farm catfish,” I said. “How do they compare with wild ones?”

“Some wild catfish taste musty,” McKinney replied. “But these farm fish are bland, well-textured, sweet. Did you say you are heading downriver? To Vicksburg? Stop in at the Top O’ The River restaurant there and see for yourself.”

Several hours later, in what you might call empirical research, we were ensconced in the restaurant watching the sun set beyond the river, supping on catfish fillets, hushpuppies, pickled onions and hot cornbread all served on tin plates. It suited me just fine, but there was a certain English naval gentleman who wouldn’t have been impressed. Captain Frederick Marryat visited America back in the 19th century and didn’t think much of the country in general and the Mississippi River in particular, declaring that “It contains the coarsest and most uneatable of fish, such as the cat-fish and such genus. . . .” To which Mark Twain later responded: “. . . the catfish is a plenty good enough fish for anybody. . . .”

Mark wouldn’t know his Mississippi today. The grand old sidewheelers are gone; the old flatboatmen are gone. And dams have been built all over the place. But some things never change. The catfish are as ugly as ever, and just as good.


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