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TOP CAT.

Of Florida's two saltwater catfish species, this is the one you'll want to cook and eat ... Try it!

I've just landed a muscular fish over 20 inches that smashed my Gulp! swimming mullet like a freight train, then ran hard and deep like a redfish. I'm already salivating over the thought of savoring one of the best-tasting fish in Florida over dinner tonight. So why is my fishing buddy laughing, his nose turned up slightly in disdain? Because it's Bagre marinus, popularly known as a gafftopsail catfish.

Okay, okay, I'll have to deal with the gelatinous snot it's left on my leader, and yes I'll have to dodge those wicked, venomous spines to get my hook out, but sail cats just can't get no respect--just like Rodney Dangerfield and the way it used to be for barracuda before Keys angling guides pushed to have it listed as a gamefish. In other southern states, anglers appreciate saltwater catfish, but not so much in Florida. It's time for a change!

By the end of the day, after landing numerous sail cats on light spin tackle, my fishing buddy Bob Wayne, a renowned saltwater flyfisherman who has chased fish worldwide and appeared on covers of several national fly fishing magazines, is a devoted convert to the gafftopsail.

A BIT ON BIOLOGY AND HABITAT

Sail cats are an interesting species, and undeniably quite handsome with their long, graceful fins that set them apart from that other saltwater catfish, the hardhead. In other ways, they resemble the freshwater channel cats that I fished for as a kid in Kansas. Sail cats are silvery-grey on top with white bellies and no scales. They have two chin barbels versus four on hardheads with two more at the corners of their mouth, the better to detect food. Their dorsal and pectoral fins have long, wispy filaments flowing from the tips, hence the name sail cat. A gaff-topsail, in sailing terminology, refers to an arrangement of sails in which a triangular top sheet flies above the pole, or gaff, at the top of a four-cornered main sail--but we digress. Here's the important thing: As anyone who has been spiked by one of these fins will testify, they are to be avoided at all costs--they are sharp and venomous, perfectly capable of inflicting a painful sting that will swell and can cause nausea, to which I can attest.

Sail cats spawn May to August over inshore mudflats. They lay only 40 to 50 large eggs, which the male incubates in his mouth for several weeks. He goes without food and provides shelter there until the young reach 4 inches. Talk about a good daddy!

Gaftopsail cats are found throughout Florida in shallow and medium-depth nearshore waters, both in the Atlantic and Gulf. They can tolerate brackish waters and seek out warmer saltwater environs during the winter, both nearshore and in places like the Everglades backcountry.

Sail cats can get big enough to put a real bend in your rod. Most weigh a pound or two and run 15 to 20 inches. A 20-inch fish will go almost 5 pounds. They can grow to over two feet and 9 pounds. One nearly that size surprised me in a mangrove tunnel, dove under my kayak, and promptly snapped my rod in half. While not much for jumping, they are terrific battlers.

WHAT THE Y EAT AND WHERE TO FIND THEM

Like most catfish, sail cats will dine on just about anything that moves, which makes them a fish for family outings. Contrary to the popular wisdom that all catties are bottom feeders, sail cats--unlike their cousins the hardhead catfish--feed throughout the water column. Indeed, research shows that sail cats have quite posh appetites when it comes to their dining. Nine-five percent of their diet is made up of crustaceans, with blue crabs and shrimp being favorite dishes. But mullet and other forage fish are also on the menu, making them fair game for everything from diving plugs like a Rapala or Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow, to white softbaits and Gulp! shrimp and swimming mullet threaded on a 1/8-ounce red jig head (my favorite). They'll even take surface lures. Of course, a live shrimp on a jig head danced slowly in a deep channel will produce consistently. Their diet is one reason they are much more tasty than hardhead catfish and some other saltwater species.

In the Ten Thousand Islands and Everglades backcountry, my home waters, I find sail cats most consistently in deeper channels between islands or in creeks with three to four feet of water and a decent tidal flow--the same places you can find speckled sea trout, snook and redfish. But they often surprise me by nailing a baby bass-colored jerk bait that I'm pitching under mangrove branches for snook or a plastic shrimp on a cork around oyster beds for reds. That's the fun of it--the catties are just about everywhere and usually willing when other species take a siesta. More than once when novice angling friends and family were in town and I promised them a great day on the water, the sailcats have made the day with their willing ways and tenacious battles ... leaving guests and host smiling!

Just take great care in removing that hook! A fish gripper in the mouth is a good technique--and definitely preferable if you will be transferring one of these slippery fish into a livewell, cooler or stringer. If you're limited to bare-handing them, my technique is as follows. First let the catfish calm down a bit and stop the trademark spinning when you lift it out of the water. Letting it bump up against the side of your boat can speed this process. Then form a "V" between your thumb and forefinger and slide your hand in behind the prominent dorsal fin and the two nasty spiked pectoral fins. Once you have a firm grip, remove the lure or hook.

GAINING RESPECT AT THE DINNER TABLE

Despite their reasonably well-established reputation as good fighters, skepticism about sail cats at the dinner table is rampant. I took it upon myself to prove once and for all the gafftopsail catfish is no slouch there, either. To start with, I conducted a semi-scientific, blind tasting test at the venerable Island Cafe in Everglades City. Freshly caught sail cats went head-to-head with two fish lauded in the culinary department, speckled sea trout and sheepshead. Fillets were handed to the chef at the cafe who then produced a platter where each species had been grilled, blackened and fried. A couple of angling friends with highly experienced palates and I sampled the fish, and the sail cat won out over the typically more coveted fish.

This wasn't a fluke. Checking out online fishing forums in states like Texas and Louisiana, I found many glowing endorsements of tasty sail cats:

* "Ok, I heard all the different opinions on eating saltwater sailcats. Just finishing cooking and eating some filets. They were great! I did soak them in milk Just gotta remember that reds were considered trash fish at one time." Texas Fishing Forum

* "I'm picky about what I eat and how it's prepared. I've eaten gafftop for six decades. No special preparation is required. IMO they're far superior to farm-raised catfish." Texas Fishing Forum

* "Hey bud, down here in Louisiana, those things are as common as Budweiser beer. Some people don't eat them, but let me tell you they are some of the best eatin' fish out there. Granted the slime they carry gets everywhere ... boat, rod, reel, but once you fillet them they eat as good as any other cat. But stay away from hardheads." The United States Catfish Association Forum

There are even signs that the Florida saltwater fishing community is wising up and warming up to gafftopsail cats. The Online Fisherman carried this hearty endorsement by a 29-year veteran employee of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission:

* "With both fish (sea bass and gafftopsail catfish) carefully divided and placed on a plate, it was time to see what the fuss was all about. The sea bass lived up to its reputation of being a special treat and a savory eating fish. Enthusiastic to try the catfish, we both took a bite and looked at each other. Wow, it was awesome! Who knew! The catfish turned out to be a great tasting catch--mild, flaky, and delicious. I'll be keeping my share from now on. It actually had a better taste and texture than freshwater catfish. I'm sold and can't wait to catch some more so I can share with my coworkers."

Oh, now you're thinking that's just a bunch of amateurs spouting off. But wait ... listen to what renowned head chef, Justin Devillier, at the famous New Orleans restaurant La Petite Grocery had to say about gafftopsail catfish in Garden & Gun magazine:

* "Oh man, those things can be nasty. Most people won't cook them at all. But a quick simmer in a rich flavorful sauce--a buttery curry, for example--can turn this generally cast-aside saltwater catch into an occasion-worthy dinner. The gafftop is like most fish: If you treat it well right out of the water, you can make something really good of it."

PREPARING YOURCATCH

As the good chef stressed, taking good care of your catch of catfish is just what you would do with a prize redfish. Fortunately, sail cats are easy to clean, producing nice firm fillets ready for the skillet. Here are the key steps:

[check] First, remove mucous off fish with paper towel.

[check] Snip off fins at base.

[check] Find ribs just behind pectoral fins and start fillet there to tall.

[check] Turn fillet over, hold tail with pliers, and slice forward to remove skin.

[check] Avoid the red meat on the front end of the body and remove red lateral line to prevent any muddy taste.

Cook like your favorite fish--blacken, grill, etc., but it's hard to beat good old fried catfish. And if you don't trust our research, try your own! There are no regulations on gafftopsail catfish--no seasons, size limits, or bag. Only the general FWC provision for unregulated species applies: no more than 100 count per person.

Caption: After a day catching gaff topsail catfish like this one, the species won the admiration of veteran angler Bob Wayne.

Caption: Gaff topsail catfish won this blind taste test at the Island Cafe in Everglades City.

Caption: When unhooking and handling these fish, do not get poked by their fins-it hurts.
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Author:Duerksen, Chris
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Jun 1, 2018
Words:1753
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