Should you shoot that big cowhorn that just walked into your food plot, or will you be stuffing your future into your freezer?
Think of what life must be like for a hardhead catfish — despised by all, loved by none. The contempt is universal. A commercial shrimper once told me that he wished he could drain the ocean, take a stick and kill all of them.
“You know how many shrimp they eat?” he asked.
Some recreational fishermen take the most novel approaches in dispatching their sharp-spined nemesis. Knives, ice picks, pliers, baseball bats and cudgels of every variety are used.
When I wrote the book Angler’s Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico in 2005, it was suggested that I list the food value of the various fishes that I discussed in the book. So I did.
For that ignoble creature, the hardhead catfish, Ariopsis felis, I penned, “Seldom eaten, but it is good table fare, better than the gafftopsail catfish.” The hue and cry rang throughout the land. Some readers literally questioned my sanity.
I always asked my tormenters the same question, “Have you ever eaten a hardhead?” The answer was invariably and without fail the same, “No, but everybody knows that they aren’t any good.”
I have to admit that the first time I ate them, it was under duress. I had to do it for my job. But the results shocked me. Then I did a blind taste with hardheads and speckled trout on my family. They all picked hardheads as better. Then I did it again with friends. The results were the same.
The fish’s flesh is mild and without any intramuscular bones. And unlike with gaftopsail catfish, there is little powerfully fishy red meat to remove from the fillet.
But setting its table qualities aside, the biology of this fish is interesting. Because there seem to be a bizillion of them in coastal waters, it is easy to assume that the creature produces a lot of eggs.
Actually the reverse is true. Each female produces only 14 to 64 mature eggs each season. Young females during their first spawning may lay as few as six eggs. But the eggs have a high survival rate. After the male hardhead fertilizes the marble-sized eggs, he broods them in his mouth for 40 to 72 days until they hatch and for 2 to 4 weeks thereafter.
Hardhead catfish spawning peaks during June and July, and is most commonly done in shallow bays and estuaries. Minimum sizes at maturity are 6.6 inches for males and 7.2 inches for females. In virtually every study, females outnumber males.
The success of their reproductive strategy is obvious in their numbers. Hardhead catfish are lumped together in a category called “bottomfish,” a group of about 200 species that live on or near mud and sand bottoms. Within this large group, it is the fourth most important species by weight, trailing only Atlantic croaker, spot and longspine porgy.
Within their range, they are a fairly shallow-water species. Trawl surveys by scientists showed that the majority of them were found in waters shallower than 55 feet. Less than two percent came from waters deeper than 120 feet.
Hardhead catfish do move in response to water temperature, however. During the cooler months in the northern Gulf of Mexico, they will move from shallow marsh waters and bays to offshore waters.
Because in the Gulf, their range overlaps so well the range of brown and white shrimp, it is easy to assume that hardheads are major shrimp predators. Research on the subject is conflicting. A 1958 study in Lake Pontchartrain revealed no shrimp in the stomachs of 40 hardhead catfish. A researcher in Texas in 1945 looked in 85 stomachs and found shrimp in only two.
In 1967, Louisiana biologists checked the stomachs of 226 hardhead catfish that they caught in a stationary wing net. About half of these had consumed shrimp. But the biologists cautioned, with good reason, that the fish may likely have consumed the shrimp after they entered the wing net, which was set to catch shrimp, rather than before they entered it.
Hardheads are opportunistic feeders and will eat almost anything. Items found in their stomachs include algae, pieces of plants, worms, snails, clams, microscopic zooplankton, marine shrimp, grass shrimp, blue crabs, mud crabs, hermit crabs, insects, spiders, small fish, especially anchovies, but also including smaller hardheads, fish bones, mud, sand and even scales actively taken from living fish.