Saltwater Catfish

                   The two types of saltwater catfish
that live along the southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts of North America are the gafftopsail catfish and the hardhead catfish. Both varieties are regularly caught by onshore and inshore anglers, most of whom are actually fishing for more glamorous species. Between them, the gafftopsail is perhaps more desirable as table fare because it is meatier, but neither is generally considered a prize catch.

All catfish are essentially scavengers that rely upon smell to guide them to their food source. For this reason, strong smelling oily and bloody baits like cut mackerel and small baitfish work well in provoking a strike from them. When fishing during a low tide be sure to attach sufficient weight to your rig to keep it well anchored as the tide begins to rise. It is better to leave your bait stationary for as long as possible in order to allow the scent to travel through the water column and draw in fish. One of the best rigs to use when fishing for saltwater catfish is either a single or double dropper loop. I like to use a #5 hook and tie a 3/4 egg weight about 1 ft from the hook and cast it out with some squid on my hook and drift until my line takes off, start of in 15ft and drift to 30ft, once you reach 30 ft. go back to 15 ft. and repeat this process until your tired of catching them. 

Because saltwater catfish are not particularly large, you can fish for them with either light or medium gauge tackle with the reel of your choice. 10- to 20-pound test line is preferable when you will be fishing around a structure of any kind. A medium sized circle hook performs best because it almost always ends up in the fish’s mouth rather than down its gullet. Be careful when unhooking your fish, however, because these catfish have extremely sharp spines that, because of the slime that covers their bodies, can quickly cause severe infection if not treated immediately.   

Cleaning a saltwater catfish requires a sharp knife in order to slice through its thick skin. Cut a single incision from the adipose fin near the fish’s tail all the way up to its head, and then carefully pull off the skin, making further incisions whenever necessary. 

These catfish are found from Texas to Virginia and even further north on almost any kind of inland water, even in offshore water in depths up to about thirty feet. They are exactly like their freshwater cousins. In fact, if they are lying side by side, it is virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other.

There is one difference that anyone who has handled them can tell you about. The saltwater variety has some powerful pain associated with its fins. Even a small prick by one of them can cause some real discomfort. And a full-fledged stick in the hand can cause swelling, pain, and even nausea in some people.

We are sure that there are some of you out there that do eat them, but most people throw them back. The Gaff Topsail version of this fish is said to be very tasty, but we have never attempted to eat even that one. So, what is the point of all this talk about the lowly hardhead catfish?

Here is just a short list of why I hate catching saltwater catfish (or more like why I hate it when they bite my line while I am fishing for an inshore fish like a snook, redfish, or big sea trout):

  • They are slimy and nasty
  • They slime up my leader and lure
  • They always find a way to take my best live bait
  • They make annoying grunting sounds and poop everywhere
  • They have razor sharp dorsal and pectoral fins that hurt like crazy if they stick in your skin
  • They always seem to take forever to get off your hook as they rarely stop wiggling, which of course cost you even more time away from pursuing the saltwater fish you were probably going after in the first place

But did you know that these notorious fish we all know as “Saltwater Catfish” can make for some of the best bait for big tarpon and cobia?


However, before I get into the steps on how you can use these catfish for bait, let’s go over the quick difference between saltwater catfish and freshwater catfish

The Slimy Saltwater Catfish “The Hardhead” Cat
saltwater catfish

This is the saltwater “Hardhead” catfish

  • Saltwater catfish usually fall into one of three main types of catfish
    • Hardhead catfish
    • Sailcats
    • Gafftopsail Catfish
  • Of the three catfish, only the sailcat and gafftop are the ones you hear about people eating, but even then, most anglers seem to dismiss catfish for their reputation of being slimy, having sharp fins (thus a pain to handle and clean), and because they are the ultimate bottom feeder
  • They can NOT sting you either. But the smaller catfish do have razor sharp fins (dorsal and two pectoral fins) that can pierce your skin and cause some serious pain (although it’s not officially considered “poisonous”).
  • These saltwater catfish also have “whiskers” known as Barbels, which the catfish uses to help it find food in grass flats and in other parts of the ocean floor
  • The fins can be incredibly sharp on some of these small to medium sized saltwater catfish. I have personally seen a catfish dorsal fin go right through the thick sole of a tennis shoe without any problem (so don’t ever kick them or try standing on them to take the hook out)
  • How to hook and fish these Saltwater Catfish

    There are a few different ways to fish these saltwater catfish for tarpon and cobia. Let’s cover each one briefly.

    • If you end up cutting the head off and fishing just the tail, you will hook the catfish through the smaller diameter part of the tail (right near the tapered end of the tail)
    • If you are fishing the full catfish (dead or alive), you can either hook it through the lips (both top and bottom), or just behind their bony head plates on top.
    • If you are anchored up, some anglers like to use large bobbers or popping corks
    • And if you are drifting, it is usually best to free line and let the catfish stick around the bottom
    • Remember to always use your gloves when handling these slimy fish, and always cut the spines off the fins first
    • Finally, get ready for some line to scream out of your reel, because it usually won’t be a small fish hitting these large catfish.
  • Are saltwater catfish good to eat? That’s a question that gets asked a lot! It’s also a question that until recently I would have said no to. However, after seeing several YouTube videos of people eating them and claiming that they tasted the same, if not better than their freshwater counterparts, I had to try them for myself.

    In short, yes, you cat eat saltwater catfish! They are completely safe to eat. As far as table fare goes, I personally don’t think that they taste much like a freshwater catfish, but more like a Whiting or Sea Trout. While I was impressed with their taste, I don’t think that I’ll be keeping them for dinner on a regular basis, as they are super messy and a pain in the butt to clean.

    So, if you’re out saltwater fishing and one of these slimy bottom feeders happens to get hooked on your line, you might want to think twice about throwing it back! more people are eating them now days.