Fishing & Boating News

"Hardhead".. Trash or Treasure?

by: Ed Snyder, Ed Snyder Outdoors

Filet of Hardhead- cottage fries- baked beans- and a chilled brew-
Photo by Ed Snyder
Children of all ages love catching catfish
Photo by Ed Snyder
(May. 13, 2011 - Bolivar Peninsula, Texas.) For years and years I've fussed and cussed catching the lowly hardhead catfish, and like most anglers asked the question, "What use do these critters have in the scheme of nature? I even attempted using hardheads once as crab-bait, but even the crabs seemed to avoid these dreadful critters. My negative attitude toward these barbarous devils were further enhanced when severely finned several times by it's toxic fins.

So, to write about this saltwater variety of catfish, which most anglers curse and sling to the ground when catching, I had to study it to find its qualities, if any, and worse yet, EAT ONE! And what I found out about this critter was very surprising and TASTEY.

Hardhead Catfish (Arius felis) otherwise known as Sea Catfish, Stinger Cats, or Tourist Trout, have six barbels sticking out from their chins like whiskers. These barbels help find crabs, fish, and shrimp in the muddy bays where they live. Their dorsal and pectoral fins are sharp, slime-covered barbed spines that can cause severe pain when sticking human flesh. The dorsal spine, normally held erect when excited, can penetrate shoes, sneakers, flip flops, or automobile tires. So the next time you see anglers toss hardheads on the ground for you to tread upon "THANK THEM!!" besides it's illegal to do so and can result in heavy fines. Adults may weigh up to two pounds or more, but average about a pound. Texas record is 3.3 pounds; 19 inches; caught in 1997.

Life History: Hardheads are spring spawners; with males carrying the eggs in their mouths to protect them until they hatch and the young are able to care for themselves.

Habitat: The hardhead catfish spawn in large numbers in both bay and Gulf waters. Distribution; Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico waters.

How To Catch: Hardheads are ravenous feeders and will take any type of natural bait on any type of fishing gear as well as some artificial baits.

NOTE: Exercise great care when removing this fish from your hook as the slime layer covering the large barbed dorsal spine is mildly toxic. A puncture will be followed by severe pain and swelling. The spine is also barbed, breaking off when withdrawn causing an additionally painful process when removed. Pliers or other devices should be used to hold the fish while removing the hook. Most of all, do not use your foot to hold it still. The dorsal spine is normally held erect and leather-soled shoes are not enough protection. One of my worst incidents was when I impaled my thumb with a its pectoral fin. The pain was excruciating with my whole hand going numb. Then when I attempted to extract the fin its barbed spine broke off in my thumb. The barbed splinter painfully stayed in my thumb for 2 months until it finally worked its way to the surface when I pulled it out.

Where To Catch: Hardheads can be found in most Texas bays and Gulf waters, and are fairly easy to catch. Bottom feeders they will feed on dead shrimp, squid, cut-baits, and just about anything you can bait your hook with.

How To Eat: While the flesh is edible, it isn't very tasty and the fish is difficult to clean. Other Hardheads are notorious bait thieves and since they occur in great numbers, it is often difficult to catch other species -- particularly near well fished piers or bridges.

Now, it is this above statement about the catfish being edible but not very tasty and hard to clean that caught my attention the most. Over the years I've heard from various ethnic groups who dine on hardhead catfish and actually enjoy the flavor and texture of this "lowly" catfish. The challenge was set, how could I write a knowledgeable piece about hardheads without a culinary test. On informing most of my fishing amigos about my wanting to test this "carte du jour" I received "ughs" and grimaces in return. And I must say, I wasn't really looking forward to this after years of cursing them... "Sigh!

How would you like your hardhead sir: broiled, fried, or blackened?" I jest as to how long it will take before we hear those words coming from a waiter at a seafood restaurant?

"Who in their right mind would eat a shark?" we once thought. Then, the market value of shark started to rise into the "muy" pesetas'. I tried shark and found it to be delicious and flavorful. Then stingray began showing up as "poor mans scallops" and I also found them to be just as tasteful. But, but, to eat a hardhead catfish? Well I've dined on it's cousin the Topsail Catfish, or Gafftop as they call them in Texas, and despite some problems with cleaning them for the table, I found Gafftop to be excellent in both quality and taste.

Being an avid angler I decided to catch a hardhead ON PURPOSE, which shouldn't be hard, But "alas", when you don't want them to bite they seem to be everywhere, and when you're actually targeting the hardhead they all but disappear... "SIGH"

But for the help of friends, who managed to catch a few for me, I found the flesh to be firm for the fillet knife finding them easy to clean. One was soaked in milk then rolled in freeze dried potato flakes and Sauteed in a skillet with olive oil. Another was soaked in milk and egg wash, then rolled in tempura (oriental flour) before being deep fried in peanut oil. Yet another was brushed with salad mustard then rolled in Chachere's seasoned fish fry before being deep fried in peanut oil. And the last was soaked in milk then dipped in beer batter before being deep fried to a golden brown.

I found all four "fillet of hardhead" recipes to be tasty but I much preferred the mustard brushed filet with Chachere's seasoned fish fry. My second best was the tempura fish, third was the potato flaked filet, and fourth was the beer battered fish.

Although hardhead won't take priority over redfish, trout, or flounder, I personally wouldn't mind hardhead catfish becoming an entree at any of my future family fish fries. I would rate the hardhead catfish as a definite "plus" on the dinner table as it has its own "distinct" flavor. But I'll leave that up to you. Hardhead Catfish...."Trash or Treasure?

Mustard Style Hardhead-
6 filets (3 catfish) Soak Filets in milk for 1 hour
1/2 cup of milk Coat Filets with Fish Seasoning
Yellow Salad Mustard Deep fry Filets in oil
1 bag Tony Chacherie's Fish Seasoning Drain Filets on paper towel
Boiler Pot- Peanut oil Serve with Cottage Fries and Baked Beans

Even women anglers love to catch tourist trout-
Photo by Ed Snyder
Saltwater Catfish are a favorite catch for those who relish them
Photo by Ed Snyder