The Two Types of Saltwater Catfish and How to Catch Them

Gafftopsail Catfish
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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.

Saltwater Catfish Size

Saltwater catfish are not as large as their freshwater cousins, and rarely weigh much more than 3 pounds. They generally inhabit shallower waters near shore and feed most actively at night. In order to avoid being eaten by bigger predator fish, saltwater catfish usually cruise the skinny water when the tide is at its lowest point and not attractive to larger species.  

Relying on Smell for Food

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.

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 razor 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.   

Saltwater Catfish - a Profile

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?