Just like hunting, when it comes to fishing my goal is big game. So in the springtime I regularly set noodle lines for choupic and catfish, but this year I had the urge to catch a big one the old-fashioned way: with a rod and reel.
I had some trips planned to fish the Mississippi River, but first I went on a test run near my house in the Intracoastal since the river was so high. I was expecting to catch the usual 5- to 15-pounders, so I was stunned when I hooked into the biggest mud whale I’ve ever seen.
I’ve been fishing for catfish from the bayous my entire life and have taken some nice 40-pounders, but those have always been on trotlines, jugs, noodles and hoop nets.
I once won the catfish division in a fishing rodeo when I was a 16-year-old kid. It was in the final few hours before the tournament ended when I hooked onto a big fish in the Intracoastal near Houma using cut perch on a double-hooked suspension rig, but I had forgotten to bring a net.
I remember climbing down an 8-foot high cliff-like bank to get in the water full of huge rocks to grab the biggest catfish I ever hooked. When I stuck my hand in its mouth, it bit down hard, shook free and then swam back into the deep, leaving me bloody.
But my Zebco 888 cranked it back in and on the second attempt, I threw my pole aside and stuck both hands in those jaws, tossing the 30-pound fish over my head 8 feet high onto the bank. I still have scars today where the skin was completely ripped off my thumb — a truly great memory.
So my goal was to get a bigger one this year.
The adventure began when I caught a huge 10-pound gaspergou using live crawfish, and about two dozen nice 2- to 15-pound catfish on noodle lines. That would be more than enough for plenty of fish patties to eat, and also to give to my friends and clients.
Since I had my meat for the week, the next day I decided to focus exclusively on catching a large catfish on the rod using chunks of cut-up gaspergou for bait. Usually, I like to use freshly cut and marinated perch when targeting large catfish, but all I had was my fresh gou. (It definitely hurt my feelings to chop up this tasty fish for bait.)
A front had passed, leaving the day bright blue and sunny. After an hour without a bite, I decided to try to fish some structure. So I found some deep pilings in 20 feet of water where my side-view depth finder showed a lot of baitfish. I tossed out my six poles in every direction: Three were rigged with double suspension rigs, two with Santee rigs and one with a cork rig.
Some guy fishing nearby was catching small catfish one after another using night crawlers and shrimp, but I stayed focused on my mission: big hooks, big baits and big fish.
Twenty minutes later while sitting in the boat making some extra rigs alongside my dog, the pole fishing directly under the boat bowed over. It had my Ambassadeur 6000 rod spooled with 65-pound braid and a cork, which was suspending my bait a foot off the bottom with a Carolina rig using a 40-pound mono leader and 7/0 circle hook.
At first the fish must not have even known he was hooked, and I thought it was just a regular-sized fish. But suddenly, it went berserk and got tangled with several of the lines that were in the water and then it went under the motor.
Fishing alone, I scrambled to trim up the motor, get my head-cam on and take out the net from the front deck storage bin. Luckily, I had brought the big net.
The fish headed into nearby pilings, and I thought I’d lost the monster. With my string so tangled with other lines I couldn’t even feel the drag. I just kept pulling and cranking. After putting as much force as I thought the line could handle, somehow the fish came to the surface and I quickly scooped it up — still green.
The fish’s size was unbelievable: My 43-pound dog was hiding with her tail tucked on the farthest corner of the boat trying to avoid getting eaten by the fish that was still bucking wildly.
All the rigs I made got tangled beyond repair, and the entire boat was covered in slime, but none of that mattered: The fish was caught.
The scale on my boat bottomed out, but later that night using my standing scale, the fish weighed-in at a hefty 58 pounds.
I caught two more catfish (4- and 5-pounders) near a sunken barge on the same cork rig and called it a day. And luckily, I still had one slab of the gaspergou to eat for dinner.
In my opinion, the best parts of big catfish once they exceed 15 pounds are the head and belly meat because it’s sweet and tender. There is nearly as much quality meat in the head and belly as the actual side fillets — the belly slab on my fish was nearly 3 inches thick.
Once the entire belly is cut off the fish’s body, there is a hard ridge in the center-bottom of the belly where it’s easy to start cutting to get the outside skin off. Then, be sure to trim the silvery belly lining from the thick slab of belly meat.
For the head, I just trim along in a big soft circle where the top middle of the hard skull meets the softer meat just behind the eyes: A large medallion of meat from this area can be cut right out. Other big fish such as bull reds also have a substantial chunk of tasty meat in the head area.
Then, I trim the midline and any red meat from the main two fillets, as well as any yellow fatty areas from the belly meat. Off-colored meat will have a strong flavor, which will ruin the whole pot of food.
The meat will taste best if soaked in either brined ice water with some vinegar or lemon juice, or any type of milk. Bigger catfish can be bled while alive by cutting near the tail, resulting in extra-white meat, but I didn’t do this with my fish because I wanted an accurate weight since it was my biggest ever.
With more than a gallon bag full of prime white meat from that one catfish, many meals were provided. Along with making fish patties, any tomato-based recipe does well with oversized catfish, so I made a healthy courtbouillon and grilled up some of the belly meat
Soon, I’ll be trying to spearfish big cats, and will use my rods to target mule trout, giant alligator gars, sharks and many more big fish this summer. Fishing for anything is fun, but focusing on large predators gives me a similar rush as targeting big game animals in the woods.
This keeps me on the hunt for trophy creatures by land or sea all year long.