Outdoor Corner: Catfish!

Lyle Johnson
Alan Johnson holding a 26# catfish he caught fishing in the Mississippi River in April using crawfish for bait. He caught five that weighed over 73 pounds. Photo provided

Catfish! My mouth usually starts to water just a little bit when that word crosses my mind or somebody says it. It’s a south Louisiana dietary staple for most folks, as well as a favorite pastime for folks who like to fish.

As they are fairly easy to catch, the whiskery critters usually find their way into the ice chest on most fishing excursions using natural bait. So, just how did the catfish get its name? Those famous whiskers, of course. But they’re not really whiskers.

They are called barbels. In fish anatomy and turtle anatomy, a barbel is a slender, whisker-like sensory organ near the mouth. There are a lot more fish that have barbels besides the catfish. A couple of the species that have them we might be familiar with is the carp and the sturgeon. Barbels house the taste buds of such fish and are used to search for food in murky water. We’ll still call them whiskers.

My history with catfish goes back a long way. We had eight kids in our family, so along with enjoying catching fish, my dad had to put food on the table for 10 people. So catching catfish served a two-fold purpose.

One of the ways we caught them was on what’s called a “trot” line. There’s no official account of how the line got its name, so I can’t help you there. The south Louisiana way is usually tied on one side of the bank of a river or bayou and goes across to the other side with hooks hanging down every five or six feet.

We fished in that fashion a lot, as each line we had in Blind River or the Diversion Canal had 25 to 35 hooks and the catch ratio was much higher than fishing with a pole. But that was work. The more hooks, the more work.

The first order of business was to get enough bait for 200 to 400 hooks. A cast net quickly became a staple in our arsenal to obtain the bait, which consisted of mostly shad.

After a few hours of getting the bait, baiting all those hooks and running them numerous times came time to clean them. my dad learned from his uncle, Donnie Nickens, and I learned from dad. It’s been years since I fished trot lines, I still enjoy getting my bait with a cast net, catching and cleaning catfish.

The most common species in our area are the blue, channel, flat head and bullhead catfish. Blues and channels are common in the wild and increasingly widely farmed. Heck, farm-raised catfish became such a staple of the U.S. diet that President Ronald Reagan established National Catfish Day on June 25, 1987 to recognize "the value of farm-raised catfish."

Catfish are really easy to farm in warm climates, leading to inexpensive and safe food at local grocers. About 60 percent of U.S. farm-raised catfish are grown within a 65-mile radius of Belzoni, Mississippi. Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) supports a $450 million a year aquaculture industry. The largest producers are located in the Southern United States, including Mississippi, Alabama, and Arkansas.

Some species of catfish is in every part of the world and is a big part of their cuisine, so south Louisianans do not have the market cornered. And believe it or not, most have some form of fried catfish.

In Indonesia, catfish is usually served fried or grilled in street stalls called warung and eaten with vegetables and sambal. In Malaysia catfish, called ikan keli, is fried with spices or grilled and eaten with tamarind and Thai chillies gravy and also is often eaten with steamed rice.

While the vast majority of catfish are harmless to humans, a few species are known to present some risk. Many catfish species have “stings” (actually non-venomous in most cases) embedded behind their fins; thus precautions must be taken when handling them. Stings by striped eel catfish have killed people in rare cases.

In North America the largest blue cat was caught in the Missouri River on July 20, 2010, that weighed 130 lb. The largest ever caught was in Independence, Kansas, weighing 123 lbs. Louisiana is not shabby as our state record catfish was caught by Lawson Boyte in the Mississippi River weighing 114 lbs. Roland Lasseigne caught the state record flathead in 2007 at 95 lbs.

These records pale in comparison to a giant Mekong catfish caught in northern Thailand on 1 May 2005 and reported to the press almost 2 months later that weighed 646 lb. This is the largest giant Mekong catfish caught since Thai officials started keeping records in 1981. Who woulda thunk it! The lowly catfish is a popular fish worldwide!

So while we’re talking about the water, let’s address a big concern. Winter ended very early so warm weather activities have started a bit early as well. One of those things is boating.

If the past three weekends were any sign of things to come, one could expect a very full season of boating activity. Added to the situation our current dilemma allows for outdoors activities being one of the few things we can do and gas is very affordable.

The Diversion canal has been busier than any summer weekend I’ve ever witnessed as folks were out enjoying the water in jet skis, bateaus, surface drive boats, bass boats, bay boats, pleasure boats and the big boys, if you know what I mean.

Our waterways fill as more people getting are out and experiencing one of the joys of living in south Louisiana. More people mean more boats and more boats means the possibility of a boating accidents taking place will grow exponentially. Safety on the water is a must!

Boats have no brakes nor do they have steering once the propeller stops turning. It’s easy to make a mistake and mistakes on the water can lead to serious consequences.

Crowding is an issue as well. Everyone is well aware of the traffic problems we have on our roads. The amount of traffic on our waterways increases every year.

Drinking and driving on the water usually contributes to the majority of accidents and fatalities year in and year out. Boating lends itself to drinking a beer or two on the water. Please use a designated driver on the water.

Unfortunately, we’ve had three accidents on our waterways recently. Fortunately, there were no fatalities but in two of the incidents, the injuries were very serious. Please be careful on the water. So until next time, remember to keep the slack out and set the hook hard, be safe in the outdoors and may God truly bless you!!

Cut lines.


Rosie Kling catfish--Rosie Kling caught this 32 lb 11 oz catfish off their pier on Belle River, tight lining using Chicken fat and night crawlers. Photo provided