There are two species of catfish commonly caught in coastal waters of Texas: the gafftop and sea catfish, more commonly known as hardhead. 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.
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 wide-gapped hook.
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 small shark bite I received the same year.
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 used to keep all of the big gafftops I caught but there is a consumption warning for Sabine Lake that warns against more than three eight-ounce meals a month. They have pretty white meat that tastes similar to blue catfish, but since you have to get past the slime and there is a possible health threat I skip these days.
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 nicely.
Chester Moore, Jr.