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Texas USA

Catfish and Me

This wily and whiskered denizen of the deep stirs loyalty and hatred

Catfish and me go way back. We’ve had a love/hate thing going most of my life. They’ve jabbed me with their fins, not only in self-defense but also for fun.

For my part, I once libeled the entire species in a national publication. I’ve misinterpreted the Bible on their behalf. Or, what’s the opposite of “on their behalf?” Anyway, I called the catfish “unholy.”

The notion originated not with my interpretation of the Bible but rather from a heated argument one Sunday after church in Lubbock when I was 7 or 8 years old. The subject of catfish had come up in that morning’s sermon, and that’s what started the argument. Two guys were arguing about catfish.

“The catfish is unclean,” one of the men said. The other man offered to punch him in the face as evidence to the contrary.

“What’s that about?” I asked my parents.

“Get to the car,” Mom said.

On the way home, I asked the people in the front seat if the catfish was unclean.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dad said.

So, naturally, I worried about it. I started out curious and came away confused, which is worse than being curious. If you’re curious, there’s a chance you’ll learn something. But if you’re confused, you might never figure it out.

Finally, I decided that divine guidance would let me know if it was OK to eat catfish, and it happened just that way. One day my buddy Ricky and I went fishing at Buffalo Lakes where, in less than an hour, we caught a full stringer of catfish.

We fried those catfish and ate most of them, right there at the lake. Neither of us mentioned how funny they had tasted until we became deathly ill on the way home. Later, we found out that a nearby livestock facility had spilled some of its spoils into the lake. The catfish apparently confused the spoils for stink bait and feasted.

Ricky and I finally got better, but I accepted the incident for what it was: divine punishment.

Not long after that, inspired by a segment of The American Sportsman TV show along with articles in outdoors magazines extolling the virtues of fly-fishing, I put away my spinning rods, cane poles and minnow buckets and replaced them with a fly rod and a box of flies. Then I set about teaching myself how to cast a fly.

That was no easy task in Lubbock, because the wind would come whipping off the Caprock at dizzying speeds, throwing an almost weightless fly into the back of a luckless fly caster’s ear with uncanny precision.

Even otherwise-good friends made fun of me. The consensus was that I switched to fly-fishing because I didn’t want to get my hands dirty handling live bait. That was almost true. Aside from how cool it looked, I also took up the fly rod because I believed it was all but impossible to catch catfish on a fly. (It’s not.)

I took my fly-fishing act on the road, to Louisiana, to the Appalachian and Rocky mountains and back to Central Texas, where I settled. To help finance my habit, I wrote magazine articles about when, where and how to fly-fish. Because I didn’t know much about any of those topics, I was the perfect guide for readers who didn’t know, either.

At some point, I wrote a story called Nine Reasons To Hate Catfish for a national outdoors publication in an attempt to explain why anything that can live happily ever after at the bottom of a cow pond has no place in my life, adding aspersions on the catfish’s appearance (ugly) and intelligence (minimal).

Reaction was swift and largely unfavorable. A couple of readers thought the story was hilarious. Others didn’t think that at all. An academic from Kentucky shared results from a master’s thesis, which found that catfish were smarter than other fish, and trout are downright stupid. So there!

A fellow Texan, more to the point, wrote, “Do you think we are dumb because we don’t want to fish for bass? If that’s the case, then to hell with you.”

The kicker here is that after I wrote the story, but before it was published, I went fishing at a favorite spot on Barton Creek in Austin. A development was going in right above my old fishing hole, so I sneaked onto private property for one more go at the fish before they were off-limits forever.

Maybe they weren’t biting that day, or maybe the bass and bluegill had already moved on, but the only fish I caught was a big catfish—on a fly! Live and learn, I thought, and was about to release the fish when I stopped a moment to take in my surroundings.

Barton Creek was clear and clean-running in those days, and this was going to be my last time fishing that spot, which had served me as a refuge from so much and for so long. That big ol’ catfish I held in my hands—careful of those horns!—felt almost like a sacrament. I took a moment to admire the trees and the sky along with the blue jays, wrens and cardinals swooping through golden shafts of light. I acknowledged my place in the middle of it all.

Too bad it’s a danged ol’ catfish, I thought. Then I had another thought: Get over it.

So I took home my first catfish in more than 20 years, rolled it in flour, seasoned it, fried it and served it with potatoes and onions, pinto beans and a piece of cornbread.

My goodness, it was delicious.

Clay Coppedge, a member of Bartlett EC, lives near Walburg. He still takes the fly rod out from time to time.