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Published on August 24, 2021

Perils of Saltwater Catfish: Watch out for the fins

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

Last week, I told you a bit about Hardheads and Gafftops, but I did not get into why they can be so dangerous to handle – even for experienced fishermen. But if you are new to this, you need to be aware of the tale I’m going to tell you.

Several years ago, Texas A&M Research in Galveston published a study on both fish. They caught over 100 of each type of fish. In their study, they found that 65% of the Hardheads and Gafftops had live Vibrio (flesh-eating bacteria) on the fins and in their body slime. Vibrio is bad news. If treated in time, expect an extended hospital visit. If not treated in time, you may lose a limb. Death is a possibility.

Some old-school fishermen scrape off some slime and force it into the puncture wound. This is like giving yourself an injection of Vibrio flesh-eating bacteria.

About 25 years ago, Jan and I were drift fishing when one of us caught a six-inch Hardhead. Over the years, I had caught thousands of Hardheads and been stung hundreds of times. I would squeeze the puncture wound to make it bleed one drop of blood, wipe off the blood, and spritz the wound with WD-40 and rub it in. My pain would stop instantly, and I would go back to fishing. I am not a doctor, so don't take this as medical advice.

This time it was different. As I reached for the fish, it flounced, driving a pectoral fin into the web of my left hand between my thumb and index finger. The fin went in at least three-quarter of an inch deep. Because of the serrations, I had some difficulty pulling the fin out of my hand – but I got it out. I sprayed WD-40 into the wound, but this time, the pain would not cease.

Ten minutes later I could not make a fist. I fired up the motor and went back to the boat ramp. After getting the boat on the trailer, my wrist was swollen larger than my bicep. We headed for Houston and stopped at a hospital Emergency Room on the south edge of Houston.

By this time, I had angry red streaks going from my hand to past my elbow. When I told the ER Doctor what had happened, he turned to the nurse and ordered one syringe of pain killer and four syringes of antibiotics. He put the pain killer in my hand and then told me to drop my pants and bend over the exam table. Now my butt hurt worse than my hand. He set up an appointment with a hand specialist for Monday and sent me home.

The next day was Saturday, and one of my Uncle Clyde’s grandsons was getting married. We were invited. When we walked into the church, Uncle Clyde noticed my arm in a sling and asked, “What happened to your wing, son?”

I started to tell my story, but all I got out was,” Well, I got stung by a Hardhead.”

Uncle Clyde went white as a sheet and stumbled. He kept asking, “Have you been to a doctor, son? Have you been examined by a doctor?”

“Yes, Uncle Clyde. I’ve been to a doctor, and I have another appointment Monday,” I replied.
“Do you remember Lonnie? The man that ran the café in George West when we lived in Three Rivers?” he asked.

“Yes, you introduced me to him a number of years ago. You said he was your best friend and fishing buddy,” I replied.

“Let me tell you a story son,” Clyde said. “Several years ago, Lonnie and I loaded up the boat and went down to Corpus to fish for Redfish. We wound up in the ICWW off the mouth of a small drainage area from a back lake. The tide was falling and bringing bait fish down the drainage. Reds were gobbling up the bait fish. Catching was good.

When Lonnie had not had a bite for about 15 minutes, He reeled in and checked his bait. He didn’t know he had a small hardhead on his line. As the line came in, the Hardhead hit the gunnel and threw the hook. The little fish flounced up, hit Lonnie just below his right knee cap. No problem, he said, so we kept fishing, then went back to George West.

“Two days later, he could not get out of bed. An ambulance took him to the local clinic. The doctor there took one look at his leg and ordered him transferred to the biggest hospital in Corpus.

The next day, Lonnie’s leg was amputated at the knee. Unfortunately, that was not enough. Two days later, he was life flighted to San Antonio. The doctors took his right leg off at the hip. Lonnie lost his right leg to the hip because of Vibrio flesh-eating bacteria from a 4-inch Hardhead Catfish."
After my doctor’s appointment on Monday, I went shopping. At Academy, I found a device called a Handi-Gaff, made of aluminum. I tried a similar device made of plastic. The plastic one would float if you dropped it overboard, but it broke easily.

The metal one has two grip bar handles. You hold the top bar, and with a flip of the wrist, the bottom bar drops down, opening a pair of crablike serrated jaws. Place the jaws between the skull and the dorsal fin of the Catfish and squeeze the lower bar up with your fingers. The jaws will open large enough to hold a legal-size Redfish and close small enough to hold a catfish the size of my thumb.

I keep two Handi-Gaffs in my boat (they don’t float) and two on my fish- cleaning station. I do not handle any saltwater Catfish without using the Handi-Gaff. I do not allow anybody in my boat or on my dock to handle any saltwater cats unless they use the Handi-Gaff.

If someone doesn’t want to follow this rule, they don’t fish with me.

Enjoy your fishing trips, but beware of the perils of the Saltwater Catfish. Precaution can make the difference between the best or worst fishing trip of your life.

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