The Florida Saltwater Catfish
By Kelly Dean
It doesn’t matter where you live, there are always those who turn their nose up at local cuisine. Somehow, New England north Atlantic crab is better than south Atlantic stone crab because they are wittier at dinner parties and seldom hit on your date — or something. Somehow, some fish are simple baitfish, while others are delicacies. I don’t know why this is, but folks brag about their old stomping grounds and institutions — just before they leave it all behind for Florida’s water, sun, beech sand, warmth, fresh air, green grass, and on and on.
But this can also work in reverse: locals hate something visitors relish. Like all things that are ingrained into people’s psyche, discrimination is one of them. I think the saltwater catfish fits in this category.
If you’re fishing from the bank, canal, dock or pier, you’ll often catch a saltwater catfish on any kind of bait, especially shrimp. They put up a pretty good fight and you’re grateful if you’re a parent or grandparent wanting to show the little ones a good time. Where I’m from in the Midwest, we like catfish. Sure, it isn’t a bass or a coldwater trout, but it’s edible and puts up a pretty good fight. Some can be quite large. They’re kind of the consolation prize for fishermen who are fishing to fish — just for the enjoyment and the chance to catch dinner.
The saltwater catfish, on the other hand, is seen as a bait-stealing, spike-wielding, croaking menace that’s slimy and looks like your boss. Most Florida natives cut the line when they realize they have one on the line. Not me. Not always. I will often keep them for the dinner table because I just don’t notice any difference in flavor from the other catfish I’ve caught and eaten my whole life in fresh water. Sail fin cats are an even bigger version with the same attributes, and they’re cool looking too.
That being said, there is a difference. Satan equipped the saltwater catfish with some kind of pain juice it exudes from its skin, or spikes or whatever. If you get stabbed by a saltwater catfish in Florida, expect jellyfish-like swelling and pain, in fact, it’s much worse. Wherever it stabbed you, it will swell to the size of a small New England state and hurt like hell. I’m not kidding.
Submerging it in very hot water will help somewhat, but unfortunately, you can’t take the sink around with you and once you take it out the pain resumes. You will be carrying some kind of club-like appendage around for a few days, albeit hand or foot. Locals will make fun of you the whole time for even landing the “damned fish.”
Certainly, freshwater catfish stab you too, but it doesn’t hurt as bad as these bad-boys, no way. The wound results in your hand becoming the size of a small ham and the pain completely changes the way you handle these creatures once you ever get them on a pier. First, you cuss like a sailor, because you promised someone a meal and by gosh you’re going to deliver this fish or you’ll have to go to Publix and buy Tilapia and hope they can’t tell the difference. There’s a big difference. Second, well, I forget because I’m in severe pain.
In much of the redneck south, they eat salt cats too and don’t think anything about catching and eating them. My bait shop guy is a Louisiana Cajun. I generally can’t understand a word he says, but we did once touch on the catfish issue. In a nutshell, there isn’t much bayou folks will turn away. The secret is a net. I know, big secret. But you’d be surprised at those who try to hand-land even the toothiest fish with just a leather glove. Right. When a salt cat sees a leather glove, it uses it as a target. It’s a good thing cows don’t fish.
The salt cat can smell that unique aroma of Corinthian leather and the glove is just not enough to stop their dagger of pain. The catfish does this sideways flipping thing and it’s completely cognizant of what it’s doing – like a skilled swordsman. It’s had far more evolution years to plan its attack than you, and you are doomed.
Regardless, the saltwater catfish is a tasty morsel and with a bit of care, can be a fitting addition to the table, just like the catfish up north. But know that it is out there, menacing. Know that it is ready to defend itself. And know that it will make fun of you among its fish friends when it stabs you and you drop it back in the water. Then, to add insult to injury, you get the same guff from your friends.
And God help you if it sticks you in a place that really matters. I don’t have much more to say on that one.