There are some fish which just don’t get much respect. For example, in Southwest Florida’s coastal waters, there are few fish that are as shunned as the hardhead catfish. Aside from some tarpon fishermen who use them as bait, not many people are happy about catching hardheads (or mudcats, if you prefer).
This surprised me when I first relocated to Florida from the Midwest, because they look so much like the freshwater channel cats that we much enjoyed catching and eating back in Missouri. I’ve had a handful of people tell me they enjoy eating saltwater hardheads, but the overwhelming majority of the reports that I’ve heard indicate that they are pretty yucky. Maybe someday I’ll sample one for myself. Actually, I doubt it.
On the other hand, sailcats (gafftopsail catfish) have a devoted group of fans who target them for the table. But this is another fish that I have not gotten around to trying for myself. I think I have a mental block about all that snotty slime. Although, thinking back on all the pain they’ve caused me via aching stab wounds from their venomous spines, I probably should eat one just for retribution.
Ladyfish are also very slimy fish which are generally considered to be inedible by local anglers. But apparently, there is something of a commercial market for ladyfish. I’m told that there are people of Caribbean heritage in the Miami area who buy ladyfish to eat. This is yet another one that I have not tried eating myself (Editor’s note: I’ve tried it, and don’t bother: It’s flavorless gray mush with a million bones — Capt. Josh).
However, despite the fact that many look on these fish with disdain, I will confess to having a fondness for fishing for ladyfish on light tackle or on fly. There have been times I’ve spent hours catching and releasing frantically jumping ladyfish just for kicks.
As an aside, I’ve always wondered why another slimy and generally inedible fish that’s also a big jumper is regarded so differently: You rarely here anybody talking trash about tarpon.
I’m told that in portions of Central America, the natives do eat tarpon, but I think they’d have to be pretty hungry to stomach it. Years ago when such things were legal and commonplace I cut up some good-sized tarpon for use as shark bait. I can report that tarpon meat is pretty stinky and so oily that if you toss a chunk into the water that an oil slick will rise from it.
Jack crevalle almost never jump, but they’re still fun to catch because they pull really hard and don’t tire easily. Because of their poor reputation on the table, they are also relegated to sort of a second-class status among area saltwater fish.
I have eaten jack crevalle a few times. My judgment of the table quality of jack crevalle is mixed. I’ve never cooked it myself, but several people have tried to convince me it’s good to eat by bringing me prepared samples of their favorite recipes. There were a couple that I did enjoy, but others did not impress at all. One of the guys who brought me a good jack dish told me that it was important to eat them at the right time of year. Naturally, I’ve forgotten what time of year he said was best.
It is possible for the status of fish to change over time. When I first arrived in Florida in the early 1970s, amberjack were pretty much considered trash fish and offshore anglers were usually unhappy to hook one. I think some youngsters may have even been confused about the correct name of amberjack. So many grouper and snapper fishermen would disgustedly utter, “I got another damn jack,” when color first showed that the name “damn jack” stuck.
Then somehow public opinion changed, and people decided amberjack were good to eat. This had to be a human social change, since it’s unlikely that the fish actually changed texture or flavor from one decade to the next. As a result of this informal reclassification, a commercial market sprung up for amberjack and interest in the fish skyrocketed among recreational anglers.
It’s not hard to guess what happened next: Amberjack, which had been thick over every offshore artificial reef or wreck in the Gulf, got fished out. There were no bag and size limits or annual quotas at that time. Eventually, fishery managers enacted commercial and recreational landings quotas, size limits, bag limits and closed seasons which were effective. Amberjack are presently staging a significant comeback in spite of the fact that we now think they’re delicious.
If you’re a delicious fish, you can still be disrespected if nobody knows it. My vote for the best-eating fish in the Gulf goes to the grey triggerfish, but few locals eat them. This may be because they are odd-looking fish with a towering head spike, ratlike teeth and tough-as-bullhide skin. Triggerfish are really not my idea of the most beautiful fish in the sea — until I see those snow-white fillets on a plate.
Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Call him at 941-639-2628 or email Captain@KingFishFleet.com.