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Hardheads are the black sheep of the catfish family – slimy saltwater cousins of the more respectable channel cats. If they were humans, you’d probably find them in jail or lurking in dark alleys or looking for spare change in vending machines. In terms of fishing, their only claim to fame is that they’re a third of a trash-fish triple. Add a stingray and a ladyfish and you’ve got yourself the inverse of an inshore slam.
The worst part is that they fight just hard enough to let you think you’ve got a trout or small redfish on. Then you see that dull gray body with the dull white belly and the small flames of hope are doused by the urine stream of bitter disappointment.
The catfish misery doesn’t necessarily end there either. They can still fin you and slime you while you’re taking them off the hook. Some grunt obscenities at you in the process.
All in all, they’re an easy fish to hate. But I used to wonder if we were judging saltwater catfish too harshly. What if they’re actually good to eat? What if they’re like triggerfish and we’ve just assumed they’re bad without finding out for sure?
My father always claimed that was the case. He said he cooked some up once and placed them alongside the other fish he was frying for some gathering.
“People couldn’t tell the difference between the saltwater catfish and the channel cats,” he said.
On the surface, that’s compelling. He was a guy that cooked as many fish as anybody. And I don’t doubt his story, but there are still some problems with it.
For starters, “couldn’t tell the difference” is a whole ocean away from “really loved them” or even “liked them,” especially when you’re talking about fish. Second, he never said exactly who these people were. What if they didn’t know catfish from cat food?
Most telling is the fact that, no matter what he said, I never saw him put one in the ice chest when we were fishing. My guess is that, if he thought they were all that good, I would have been cleaning them by the boatload.
The truth is, I’ve never tried saltwater catfish and don’t need to. That’s because I’ve got a better data source for such things in my nephew, Jeff.
Jeff isn’t what you would call a picky eater. His favorite kind of food is more and the way he prefers it cooked is quickly. The second word Jeff learned was oyster, and for 35 years, I’ve watched him put away everything that was put in front of him without hesitation.
So as his father and I were talking about the merits of saltwater catfish, Bill ended the discussion by saying, “I cooked some up and Jeff didn’t like it.”
Having Jeff tell me the food is bad is the same as a polar bear telling me the water is cold. In either case, I don’t need a second opinion and I don’t want to find out firsthand.