Catfish get a bad reputation when it comes to table fare. However, because of this most people are missing out on some of the best eating fish you can get.
Location and diet of the fish contribute greatly to the taste, this is why most people consider flathead catfish to be the best catfish to eat.
Where to Catch Catfish for Eating
The environment more than any other factor determines how good a catfish is going to taste. The colder the water the better. Catfish can take on the flavor of the water they live in, and since they are among the most adaptable of all North American fish, they can live just about anywhere.
You can catch catfish in city ponds, in muddy, smelly swamps, or in pristine deep water lakes. In the western states, huge catfish are often found at the base of dams on large man-made reservoirs.
In general, the cleaner the water, the cleaner the fish, and the better the taste.
Catfish are prime examples of the saying, you are what you eat. Catfish are bottom dwellers, sometimes referred to as “bottom feeders.” As such, they come in contact with heavy metals, pesticides, and other heavier than water pollutants that often flow into the bottom of lakes, streams, and rivers.
The environment is much cleaner today than it was just 50 years ago, but many of those potentially dangerous pollutants remain in the muck on the bottom of your favorite fishery.
Best Catfish Size for Eating
Before we discuss the best eating catfish, we need to set a boundary that is true for all catfish, regardless of species and that is size.
The best eating catfish are around five pounds. You can still get a great tasting meal on some species living in cold water up to eight pounds, but beyond that, the meat begins to turn mushy, the flavor muddy, and the contaminate levels in the fish can reach dangerous levels.
This is the most widely spread species of catfish by far. There are many times more channel cats swimming around the country than flatheads or blues combined. Channel cats are the smallest of the three species, with the biggest around 30 pounds.
Many anglers swear by the channel catfish, preferring it over flatheads or blues, but that is largely because they are easier to catch, exist in a wider range of waterways, and with their smaller size, retain the characteristics that people prefer on the plate.
A five-pound channel catfish, caught in cold, clear water has flaky flesh that fries up well, holds together in a filet, and is delightful to the eye.
You’ll find channel catfish on the menu at most American restaurants. They are commercially raised in catfish farms in larger numbers than the other two species and are the most common fish on the menu at home fish fries.
North American catfish don’t reach the monstrous eight-foot lengths that Amazon Basin catfish can or weigh over 600 pounds like some caught in the Mekong River of Asia, but blue catfish are often caught weighing over 100 pounds. The official record is 143 pounds with claims of fish caught in the 19th century over 200 pounds.
As they grow in size, the quality of the meat diminishes. Once a blue cat is above 10 pounds the flesh becomes mealy, the taste diminishes and the tendency of blues to put on layers of yellow fat makes the filet greasy and very fishy tasting.
Given the chance, you’ll have a much better meal if you catch and keep four five-pound blue cats instead of one weighing 20-pounds. The flavor, texture, and overall eating enjoyment is much better with smaller fish. This is especially true with blue catfish.
As large bottom dwellers, blues will take on more contaminates than other species. There are often warnings in many states, especially near the Great Lakes suggesting eating limitations since so many larger catfish have high levels of mercury and other heavy metals.
No catfish will ever win a beauty contest, but the flathead might be the ugliest game fish around. The flattened head, wide body, and gulping mouth make this fierce fighting fish the least attractive of all three species.
Flatheads can get almost as big as blue catfish, but there is a big difference between flatheads and the other two species.
Flatheads will occasionally feed on dead organic material, but most of the time they hunt crawdads, sunfish, small perch, and gulp minnows regularly.
You can tell when you’ve hooked a flathead by the ferocious battle. Channels and blues lock down like an anchor, requiring you to crank them to the surface, but flatheads battle like bass or carp. They don’t tail dance like rainbow trout, but they’ll give you a fight.
It’s this fast-twitch muscle that gives them the best flavor of the three species. They’re lower in fat than the blue and have a better diet than the channel.
When caught in the same water, flatheads are easily the best-eating catfish.
Catfish were a staple for Native Americans, early European settlers and remain the most popular freshwater fish on the American table.
All three species taste great if taken in the right size, and from the same waters, but try a flathead if you get the chance. Their diet is better, the waters they inhabit are usually cleaner than where channel and blue catfish are found, and the smaller ones have firm flesh and excellent taste.
Flathead catfish are considered the best tasting catfish by most anglers. However, most catfish taken from clean fresh water make for good eating. I would rather eat a channel cat from clean fresh water than a flathead from swampy smelly water.
When considering keeping catfish for the table the best size is around five pounds. At this size, the meat is firm and presents little risk of contaminants.