Living Sanibel: Gafftopsail catfish
Similar in many respects to the hardhead but considerably larger, the gafftopsail catfish is a much stronger fighter when hooked. It does share the same unusual parenting technique of taking the females eggs into the males mouth immediately after spawning but it is not a bottom feeder like the hardhead. Sail cats, as they are commonly called, feed throughout the water column and will often strike lures, spoons and suspended baits.
Sail cats feed on minnows, shrimps, crustaceans and invertebrates. The sail cat ranges from Virginia to the northern tip of South America. They are fed upon by sharks, cobia and large finfish such as tarpon. Their tails are used as cut bait in the same fashion as hardheads. Their barbs are equally dangerous and are considered venomous, so extreme care should be taken when handling sail cats.
Although regarded by many as a fairly good eating fish, sail cats are seldom taken as table fare. They are said to have a slightly fishy taste to them. If taken, they should be skinned as the entire body is covered in a thick slime. Sail cats are strong fighters and aside from the dangers involved when attempting to de-hook them (it’s sometimes easier and safer to cut the line right at the hook) sail cats are an exciting fish to catch and release.
Known to bite on just about anything tossed into the ocean, from squid to sardines, frozen shrimp to chicken legs, the hardhead catfish is truly Florida’s tourist trout. They will bite on almost any sized leader, from 100 lb test to shark-wire and feed at any time of the day or night. If you cannot catch a hardhead catfish while fishing in Florida, your luck has completely run out.
The hardhead’s range runs from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to the Mexican Yucatan. They are probably one of the most common larger fish in the estuary. Three large spines, one on the end of each front pectoral and the other on the dorsal fin, are dangerous and catfish should be handled with extreme care. The spines are covered in slime, serrated and designed to readily penetrate, but microscopic barbs along the spine make them incredibly difficult to remove. Infections are common and anyone “stuck” by a catfish should seek medical attention.
Hardheads have evolved a unique parenting technique. After hatching, the male hardhead places the eggs, numbering between twenty and sixty-five eggs, in his mouth. The eggs will remain there until they hatch (around thirty days). After hatching the larvae stay in the male’s mouth for another two to four weeks when they began to venture out. They still return into the safety of their father’s mouth for several more weeks until they are large enough to survive on their own. This unusual arrangement insures a high survival rate and helps to offset the relatively small number of eggs the female catfish lays during spawning.
Hardheads are opportunistic feeders. They eat algae, sea grasses, sea cucumbers, gastropods, shrimps, crabs and smaller fishes. Catfish are eaten by sharks, cobia and other large fin fish. They are not generally considered table fare but some people have been known to eat them. Locally the hardhead catfish is considered a trash fish. Many tarpon hunters use the tail sections in the spring to fish for the silverkings, and consider it one of the best possible baits because, unlike many other cut baits, the other catfish leave it alone.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.