Saturday, May 3, 2014

Gaftopsail Catfish Fishing

The subject today is Gaffies, or Gaftopsail Catfish, or Sailcats, as they are referred to. 
Gaftopsail Catfish (courtesy to Florida Wildlife Commission)

They are an interesting fish to catch.   They're pretty staunch fighters and hit fast and hard.  Their fighting style is very similar to Channel Cats in fresh water.  They are regarded down here in Florida as an undesirable fish if you're fishing for table fare, though.  They have 2 barbels on the chin, and enormous, serrated spikes in their dorsal and pectoral fins and if you get horned by one, you're going to be visiting your doctor for some antibiotics and a tetanus shot, I'm afraid. 

Their skin, like their smaller, more common cousin in salt water, the Hardhead Cat, is covered with a slimy mucus.  I wear gripping gloves when I handle them to reduce getting horned, and help me hang on to the fish a lot more easily.

note the gripping gloves as I remove the fish from the landing net (Photo:  Earlena Leonard,
2014 all rights reserved

Gaftopsail Cats get their name from the way that their dorsal fin looks like the topsail on a sailing ship.  They don't get to be huge fish, with the world record being a hair over 10 pounds.  The Florida State Record is 8 pounds, 14 oz, and mine missed that by weighing in at 8 pounds, 6 oz.

Still, record fish or not, they are a nice fight when you get one hooked.  You'll know when you have a hit because you'll start spooling out line fast fast enough to make the drag ratchet clicker sing until you tighten down the drag and set the hook.  Personally, I use Kahle hooks, because like the circle hook, they are essentially a self setting hook, unlike the J Hook.

Kahle Hook

Octopus Circle Hook
Now, there is an ethical debate on Kahle ves Circle hooks surrounding "gut hooking" a fish.  Here's the deal....if you're going to catch and release, the circle hook is less likely to be swallowed by the fish and gut hook them.  The Hahle hooks I use are equally effective, I've found, and are easier to bait with live shrimp.  The other thing:  I'm not a catch and release fisherman with most of the fish I catch......I harvest and eat them.  For me, the Kahle hook suits my needs better, to put it simply.  Both are self setters as the fish spins away to take off, but the Kahle just does it better, especially with catfish, either fresh or salt water varieties.  The reason is because the circle barb points inward toward the back of the hook shaft and the kahle points at the eye of the hook.

So, what bait works for Sailcats?  Well, I've caught 'em on both live and frozen shrimp, frozen white shrimp from the grocery freezer, cut bait from various baitfish such as Pinfish, Finger mullet, Croakers I've caught, Greenies from cast netting.  I've also caught them on freezer burned fish from the stuff I may have lost in the freezer, and of course, squid works, as well.  They are a predator fish, much like their freshwater cousins, Channel and Blue Cats.\

The habitat of the sailcat is inshore and continental waters, estuaries, and lagoons.  They will enter brackish water, as well.  Their diet is small crustaceans, smaller fish and minnows, and the opportunistic bits of floating fish from larger fish predation.

Note the sail like appearance of the dorsal fin, and the really big barbs on both the dorsal and pectoral fins
Now, you've caught a mess of Sailcats, what do you do with them?  Well, you clean them, fillet them and fry 'em up in cornmeal, or you can make this recipe below.....but before we get into that, let's talk about cleaning them.  Fact is, you aren't going to get as much meat as you will, from a Flathead, Blue, or Channel Cat from fresh water.

Step 1:  Wash the catfish down in a vinegar and water solution to get the slime off of the fish and remove the head and split the belly and clean the cavity, so far, so good.  I like top cut the barbs off before I start cleaning the cats, though, because I really don't want to get stuck!

Step 2:  Skin the fish.  Salt water cats skins are a bit harder to pull off using the score and plier method, but it works.

Step 3:  Fillet the fish and cut out the red meat.  That's where the gamey and oily taste comes from, and leave that nice firm, pretty white fish meat.

Step 4:  Blanch the fish fillets in cold water with some citrus like lime or lemon juice in it.  I like to use Ponzu Sauce, myself for the nice flavor it gives the fish.

A nice recipe for sailcats
Personally, I fillet the fish rather than cook it whole.  I'll put the ginger in small slits in the fillets and serve this with a side of brown rice and drizzle Ponzu on the rice as well as the fish.  If you do cook the fish whole, the meat will come right off the bones, though, and either way you are in for a taste treat!  Bon appetite, and keep wetting those lines!

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