My fishing partner, Bill Killian, was a little reluctant to allow me to put the slimy fish in his boat, but changed his mind when he saw how big it was: That’s a huge gafftop you got there. Throw him in the ice chest dont let it touch the upholstery, though.
Big it was. The gafftop weighed more than 10 pounds, a true giant of its kind. It was one of 20 big gafftops we caught on that hot summer day.
Though not as popular or respected as their freshwater counterparts, there are two species of catfish commonly caught in coastal waters of Texas: the gafftop, Bagre marinus, and sea catfish, more commonly known as hardhead, Arius felis. These fish do not run in the same crowd as tarpon and speckled trout, but they do have a dedicated cult following and a few positive attributes.
Gafftops have extra-long dorsal fins that look like a sail on a boat, hence the name gafftopsail. They also have long, stringy whiskers. The fish average 2.5 pounds, but can get as big as 15 pounds. They have actually become fairly popular along the coast in no small part due to the CCA Star Tournament offering amazing prizes (boat) for adults and scholarships for kids for catching the biggest during the summer-long event.
For anyone who has never caught a gafftop, all of the talk about slime earlier in the story might seem unusual, but it is true. These fish have more slime on them than any other fish in the sea. As alluded in the beginning, the slime actually finds its way up your line when fighting these fish. Gafftops make hard, determined runs, rubbing against the line and depositing the telltale slime. The stuff then oozes along the line toward the spool like an alien visitor from a 1950s science fiction movie.
These fish are so slimy they play havoc with coastal anglers looking for more desirable species. Feeding game fish like speckled trout and redfish create oil slicks on the water. A fresh slick is a sure sign of fish feeding activity unless gafftops are in the area. They often create oil slicks just by being there. A big school of gafftops can create a slick big enough to make any angler worth his salt do a double take.
Gafftops usually hang out around fish passes, jetties, and offshore oil platforms, although they can travel far beyond the reach of saltwater.
Gafftops are like their freshwater cousins in that they are suckers for chum and will hit just about any kind of bait. They will even hit soft plastic shrimp imitations designed to catch game species.
Most of the fish Killian and I caught that day fell for free-lined chunks of cut mullet in a chum slick we created by throwing out mashed up pieces of menhaden, shrimp, and squid. When we first arrived at the spot, we did not get a bite for a good 30 minutes, but once we put the chum out, the fish immediately responded. It does not take long to figure out this pattern.
Rigging up for gafftop is easy. When jetty or offshore fishing, a simple free-line with a 10/0 circle hook connected to 17-pound test or better is usually more than adequate. When pursuing gafftops in bays, use a typical fish-finder rig with a 6/0 Kahle-style hook. I like the Daiichi Catfish Wide or Circle Wide.
Hardheads are a different story altogether. Few fish are more maligned and dreaded than the hardhead. Part of the reason is that hardhead fins contain a powerful toxin that causes severe pain, and might even send a person to the hospital. Hardheads do not seek out people to stick, but when removed them from the hook, often flop around and sometimes fin the angler.
I can attest the pain is tremendous. In 1999, a small shark bit me on the leg and a hardhead stuck me a month later. I am not exaggerating when I say the pain from the hardhead encounter was at least five times worse than the shark bite.
Hardheads are smaller than gafftops and do not get much bigger than three pounds. The average hardhead is in the neighborhood of 10 ounces.
Very few anglers actively pursue hardheads, although coastal creel surveys show they are the most commonly caught species in many areas. That is because they are highly abundant along beachfronts and in bay systems where fishing pressure is high, and will hit just about any kind of bait. Shrimp is a favorite, although they gladly accept donations of squid, cut bait, and crab.
I say accept donations because they are skilled bait thieves, which is just fine with many anglers; rebaiting a hook is far better than removing a hardhead.
An interesting note about saltwater cats is that people do not always call them by their common name. In fact, many anglers call them things that are not suitable to print in this publication. Some of the less extreme names for gafftops are slimer, slimy boy, blob fish, slime machine, Mr. Long Whiskers, and ooze fish.
Hardheads are dubbed tourist trout, stinger, thieving cat, #%&*, and other obscenities.
I always keep the big gafftops I catch. They have pretty white meat that tastes similar to blue catfish, but you have to get past the slime.
If you decide to keep gafftop, do not waste time with catfish skinners. They are too slimy to skin out, so I use an electric fillet knife. These fish fillet very easily, and yield lots of meat. It is wonderful fried or grilled.
The flesh of hardhead is not as good as gafftop, but it is not half bad. Catching a big enough fish to bother cleaning is usually the hardest part. I have eaten hardhead fried, and smoked like salmon. The smoked was better, although it was not quite as good as salmon, to put it charitably.
In parts of Louisiana, some people eat the eggs of both gafftop and hardheads. The males of both species carry the eggs in their mouths to protect them from predation, so they usually do not eat during this phase. Shrimpers often catch egg-holding males and put them aside for clients who enjoy this offbeat delicacy.
Gafftop and hardheads may not be the ultimate prize on a coastal fishing trip, but when nothing else is biting, sometimes even the most proper anglers do not mind getting a little slimy.