Gafftopsail catfish often show up in state agency surveys of shallow-water species.
The fish are opportunistic and feed on live or dead items from the top of the water column to the bottom.
(Credit La. Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries)
Gafftopsail Catfish: Saltwater Bad Boys Are Fun in a Pinch
by Alan Clemons
These fascinating fish are a bane of many Gulf of Mexico anglers, but they’re entertaining to catch if you’re bored and need a tug on the line.
Dinner was almost finished on the Biloxi-based mothership, which was anchored near Louisiana’s Chandeleur Islands. We were musing about evening plans. So far, those included sitting in deck chairs, cold beers and not much else.
The scraps of shrimp shells and heads, someone mentioned, would be fun to use to catch fish with the spinning rods. More fishing? Sign us up, and a couple of us bounced out to the back deck after helping clean up.
A gorgeous array of stars shimmered overhead as the boat bobbed in the Gulf of Mexico. We tied on smaller hooks and added a pinch of lead shot to get the rig under the surface. Honestly, I’m not sure it would’ve mattered after the first couple of drops. Fish gathered under the boat and in the edge of the light cast by the stern lights assaulted anything that hit the water.
“Got one!” someone hollered, setting off a rat-a-tat chain of replies. “Got one!” … “Took my bait!” … “Run the hook through the head and back again so they don’t steal it.” … “Got another one!” We were like little kids catching bream and small bass in a local creek, only our quarry was pinfish and catfish.
Catfish in the Gulf? Yes, definitely, and plenty of them. Gafftopsail and hardhead catfish are found throughout the Gulf of Mexico and other warmer inland coastal waters. Like their mainland cousins, they’re scavengers and opportunistic feeders. One night it might be shrimp bits and heads near a boat, and the next morning it’s dead crabs or bits of something that died in the grasses or inshore haunts. They’re catfish, after all.
They’re not revered, however, like blues, flatties and channels on the mainland. Far from it. Gafftopsails and hardheads get the stink-eye from anglers. Guides may simply cut a line to keep them from sliming a boat, which is likely. The fish are covered with a clear, protective mucous that resembles the gooey ectoplasm from Ghostbusters. The bit of venom in the spines can leave an angry, painful welt. Not having them in the boat is easier. Better to retie a hook than spend 15 minutes cleaning slime. Should you need to remove a hook, a glove or towel definitely helps with your grip.
But if you need some action or have some kids who need a bit of fun, gafftops and hardheads may be your huckleberry. They’re also known as sail cats, gaffs and slimecats, among some other unsavory names we’ll avoid in print. Dock talk isn’t always pleasant. I’ve always thought of them as the Poor Man’s roosterfish, with their incredibly cool dorsal fin and tail. They can be easy to catch, and what’s more fun than having a tight line? Whether you’re five years old on a dock or 35 years old on a mothership with cold beer and friends, catching fish is fun.
Gafftopsail catfish are the sexy cats of the Gulf, compared to their hardhead cousins that rumble around like teenage ruffians.
Gafftops are bluish-green and have a silvery-white belly, with a sheen that looks applied. Perhaps that’s the slime that glistens in the sun on their bodies, your hand, shirt, shorts, boat surfaces and the fishing line. The fish have three spiny fins just like other cats. One is on the dorsal fin, which is long and rides high like a 1950s ducktail curl. The others are on the pectoral fins. Long barbels on the chin and mouth help them discern scents and offer sensory clues. They’ll eat just about anything.
Gafftops grow to about 10 pounds and are less common than hardheads, which have similar size, colorations and habitats. It’s easy to tell them apart. Both are edible. Some anglers reportedly prefer the gafftop. If you’re angling for a mess of ‘em, you’ll likely catch hardheads.
For either species, don’t expect a gollywhopper. The 42-year-old Texas gafftop record is 13.33 pounds. Alabama (12.7 pounds) and Louisiana (11.06) are next in the Gulf standings, with Mississippi (9) and Florida (8.4) closing the books. Georgia and South Carolina don’t list records for the species, which is found in Central American waters, too.
Spawning is Interesting
Unlike other saltwater species that spawn in open water, with eggs and milt fertilizing to produce eggs that float until hatching, gafftopsail catfish do things differently.
Gafftops spawn in spring, typically in May, according to the Louisiana State University Seagrant organization. By then, coastal waters are warm enough to trigger spawning activity. Gafftop males will fertilize the eggs, which may be up to an inch in diameter. Think of that. An inch in diameter. That’s bigger than a marble or maybe the size of a smaller cherry tomato. It’s huge in comparison to most other fish eggs.
Males will hold up to 55 eggs in their mouth until they hatch, and then until the fry can feed on their own. This could be longer than two months, and during this time, the male won’t feed. He swims around, protecting and incubating his brood. It’s not rare for males of a species to protect or incubate offspring, but it’s less common than normal.
If you’re at the Gulf on vacation or want a fun break from catching reds or specks, give gafftopsails a try. You’ll have a cool story to tell your fishing buddies back home and a new species to add to your checklist.
(Alan Clemons is an award-winning professional writer who has hunted and fished in more than 40 states. He has written about news, sports, outdoors and more since 1984. Some of his first memories of fishing are of catching catfish. Clemons is married and lives in Alabama.)