By Jill J Easton
Catfish are different from bass or panfish. They don’t have scales, the skin is virtually inedible and they are built differently.
Turning a hard-headed, thrashing fish into steaks and fillets can be challenging, but this step-by-step process will get you to the hot-grease stage in no time.
Wild catfish are primarily predators. They taste different from – and much better than – the pond-raised, grain-fed fillets you buy at the grocery store. It’s been hard for me to eat farm-raised fish since I learned what a real catfish tastes like.
One suggestion while you are still on the water catching fish: let the big ones go. The ideal eating-sized catfish is from 2 to 5 pounds. Any catfish weighing 10 pounds or more is going to be coarse-textured and is likely to be strong flavored as well, so take a picture and let it go back to making new catfish.
These larger fish are the best egg-producers by far. Not only will you have a better-tasting meal with smaller fish, but your catfish catching in years to come will benefit from this good conservation practice.
The tough skin that protects a catfish has to be removed before cooking. Also, these barbeled, hard-headed denizens of lakes, rivers and ponds are much tougher and often require substantial killing before the fish can be cleaned.
Getting from fins to fillets
#1 Hit the catfish firmly on top of the head between the eyes and the gill covers with a stout stick or hammer. When you make the proper strike, the fish will stiffen and quiver but will cease thrashing. At this point the fish is dead, but doesn’t know it yet.
#2 Hang the fish from a large hook suspended with a stout rope or chain above eye level over a tub or other container. Grasp the tail firmly with your skinning pliers and use a serrated knife to slice off the tail. This is an old Mississippi River fisherman’s trick that allows the blood to drain out of the fish while you skin it. This greatly improves the taste of the finished product.
#3 While the fish is still hanging, use the serrated knife to score the skin just behind the head on both sides of the spine. These cuts don’t have to be long or deep, just big enough so you can grasp the cut skin with your skinning pliers.
#4 Grasp the skin with the skinning pliers and start working it down the fish’s body, pulling alternately on each side of the fish as you go, When you pull the skin off the tail, a v-shaped piece of skin will still be on the fish’s belly. Remove the fish from the hook, lay it on a flat surface (a 1-by-2-foot piece of board or plywood works great) and use the serrated knife to make a cut high on the belly, as close as possible to the gills. Cut all the way across the fish’s underside.
#5 Cut off the head (a meat cleaver and a rubber mallet make easy work of this job,) pull out the guts and discard them. Some anglers save any roe (fish egg masses) they find and fry it up after the fillets are cooked. Don’t. The eggs make a mess in the cooking oil and pop and spatter horribly.
#6 Turn the fish over and use a fillet knife (NOT an electric knife) to cut off the belly meat, starting at the front and feeling your way along the rib cage to the vent, cutting either in front of or behind the anal fins. Lay the belly meat on a flat surface and again use the serrated knife to scrape off the “silver skin” from the interior side of the meat. Trim away the silver skin that adheres to the edges of the belly meat. (You can leave the silver skin on the meat if you wish, but as with cutting off the tail, removing it improves the flavor.) Silver skinless belly meat is the best meat on a catfish, especially flatheads.
#7 Put the body on its side on your flat working surface. Starting just past the ventral fins and working from the top, cut with a filleting knife (it’s okay to use the electric job here) along each side of the spine down to the top of the rib cage. Staying as close to the ribs as possible, work the meat off the bone and follow the rib cage back along the fish to the vertebra, sliding the knife along the bone all the way to the tail. Repeat the process on the other side.
#8 Either cut the fillets into frying-sized chunks or leave them whole for grilling or baking.
#9 No question, fresh catfish tastes better than frozen, but catfish still freeze well if you do it right. Pack the fillets tightly in a freezer bag and add water to cover. Fish packed in water will last for years and taste good no matter when they are cooked, within reason. We’ve cooked five-year-old catfish, and they were delicious. Most of our fish are packed in pint freezer bags. This is a perfect size meal for two people.
Simple Grilled or Baked Catfish
2 or more catfish filets
Italian salad dressing or seasoned olive oil
Half a lemon
Cavender’s or your favorite seasoning mixture
Mix salad dressing, lemon juice and soy sauce. Marinate the fish in the mixture for 15 minutes to an hour. Put the fish in a greased grill basket and cook for about 10 minutes a side or until the fish flakes easily. Enjoy.