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Published on August 17, 2021

Fishing with Roy: The stories of Hardheads and Gafftops

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

It’s summertime, and a lot of us are fishing. It’s time to get to know two of the fish you probably say bad things about when they end up on your line. They may just surprise you.

Hardhead Catfish have a lot of names. Some of the printable names include: Sea Catfish, Tourist Trout, Marine Catfish, Sea Cat, and Crucifixion Fish.

The last name is because, on the bottom of the inside of the skull above where the tongue would be there is a bony structure in the shape of a cross. Additional structure can be interpreted as a figure of a person on the cross. Several small, free-floating V-shaped bones can be considered as doves flying around the cross.

Any souvenir stand in Galveston should have these on display.

Hardheads are very important to the saltwater environment. They will eat all the dead animal and vegetable matter that they can find. They are the vultures of the sea. If not for crabs and Hardheads, the saltwater would soon be overwhelmed with all sorts of decaying matter and would not be fit for swimming, boating, fishing, or any other use.

Male Hardheads are also good parents. After the rather large female’s eggs are fertilized, the male will gather the eggs into his mouth and protect them until after they hatch and until the young are big enough to fend for themselves. This can take up to 65 days, and the male does not eat during this time.

Most people do not consider Hardheads as edible table fare, but a good Cajun cook can make a very good meal from Hardheads using spices.

Gafftopsail Catfish also have a variety of names including Gafftop, Sail Cat, Schooner Rigs, Joe Cats, Snot Sharks, and Slime Machines. These fish have long, flowing extensions off the dorsal and pectoral fins. The body is covered in a layer of very slick slime, making the fish very slippery and hard to handle.

Male Gafftop are also good parents, carrying the fertilized eggs and young just like Hardheads. Gafftop are considered good table fish, especially if the tail is cut off and the fish is allowed to bleed out before being put on ice. Gafftop have a large head structure and a big belly. You are lucky to get 30%-40% of live weight in edible meat.

Be forewarned. Both fish are dangerous to handle. The dorsal and pectoral fins are of very hard bone and are extremely sharp. These fins will easily penetrate shoe leather. The sides of the fins have serrations pointing down, making the fin hard to remove. The slime on the fin causes excruciating pain that can last for hours.

Most people say that they would not eat a Hardhead under any circumstances.

Wrong – they probably already have. Up until about 10 years ago, the most popular brand of frozen breaded fish sticks listed its number one ingredient as – are you ready? – sea catfish.
Next week: My experience with Hardheads.

(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)