Ask any random set of anglers their opinion on catfish, and you’re likely to get two very polarizing answers:
Angler 1 may say catfish are a nuisance, they’re good for nothin’ bottom feeders that taste like mud and offer no sporting qualities.
And Angler 2 may say they love nothing more than catching a cooler full of catfish and frying them up with friends and family.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle, and in this article, I’m going to cover whether or not catfish are bottom feeders, and how that notion may or may not affect the taste of fresh catfish fillets.
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What is a bottom feeder, exactly?
As the name implies, bottom-feeding aquatic animals eat almost exclusively from the bottom of the water where they live.
Their diet can include aquatic plants, dead and decaying organic matter that sinks down from above, and animals living on or beneath the sediment.
The classic example of a bottom feeder is the common carp (Cyprinius carpio), whose sucker-like mouth allows it to sift through soft bottoms for any of the above food sources to chow on.
Many claim that this lifestyle can give a muddy taste or mushy texture to the flesh of bottom-feeding animals, and some even say that they are unsafe or unsanitary to consume.
So, are Catfish Bottom Feeders?
Catfish do exhibit many common bottom-feeder traits, and their bodies are even adapted for this lifestyle.
Their ‘whiskers’ are sensory barbels that allow them to feel around for food in the sediment, and their smooth skin is actually completely covered in taste receptors that clue them in if they brush up against anything edible.
Yes, this means that if you’ve ever held a catfish, it knows what your hands taste like!
Nothing is true 100 percent of the time, however, and some catfish come up off of the bottom much more than one would expect.
It Depends On The Catfish Species
Wild channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are known to slurp down insects such as grasshoppers that get stuck on the water’s surface, and you can even fish for them using this topwater strategy.
Topwater lures like propeller baits can attract catfish in the same way if grasshoppers are hard to find. The fish are said to hit hard and fast if they see a twitching morsel, so get ready for a fight!
Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus) have been known to chase down schooling bait fish like shad and herring when they run up the rivers where the catfish live, and will bite readily if a live one is hooked and cast out.
This is the very same food source that striped and white bass feed on for their protein, and anglers have no qualms about eating those fish by the boatload.
Some species, like the flathead catfish (Pylodictisolivaris) and Europe’s feared Wels catfish (Silurus glanis), are full-blown apex predators.
They scavenge when necessary but will hunt when they can, and the Wels has even been seen launching itself out onto river banks to eat resting birds!
Both species have been recorded at well over 100 pounds, and heavy-duty tackle is required if you hope to land one without snapping your rod in two.
Farmed catfish are even further removed from the bottom, and actually feed primarily on the top of the water as they’re fed with floating pellets. So even if the mud irks you, don’t let catfish fillets from the store do the same!
Conversely, smaller catfish that often inhabit small ponds and swampy wetlands like the yellow bullhead have a reputation for tasting muddy and feeding on the bottom. However, that doesnt stop many folks from enjoying them!
Are Bottom Feeders Safe to Eat?
Catfish do bottom feed a fair bit (though not always), so this question is still relevant.
The short answer is that it depends on where you’re fishing.
It is true that bottom feeders are more readily exposed to whatever chemicals happen to be in the water than other species, including toxins if they are present.
A Serbian study from earlier this year examined how different species of fish in the Danube River accumulate toxins over time, and researchers found that bottom feeders tend to have a higher toxin accumulation rate relative to other species.
That being said, it should be noted that every single fish studied had at least some toxins within!
So the lesson here isn’t to avoid bottom feeders, but rather to avoid eating fish out of dirty water!
If the water is clean, bottom feeders are just as safe as any other fish. Store-bought catfish is mostly farmed anyways, meaning the water quality is tightly controlled and you can dig in with no worries.
Do Bottom Feeders Really Taste Bad?
Many people, even those who admit catfish are safe, will still go on to claim that their bottom-feeding lifestyle can give their flesh a muddy or dirty taste.
I find this especially hilarious because some of the most sought-after and expensive food out there comes from bottom feeders!
Lobster, shrimp, crab, drumfish, and flatfish like halibut and flounder are all examples of bottom feeders that everyone agrees taste amazing.
Catfish and carp can potentially contain a bit of leftover sediment in their guts if wild-caught, and the easiest way to get it out is to keep the fish alive in clean water overnight to purge.
A filled bathtub can do the trick, or if you’re doing some riverside camping you can buy a mesh fish keeper to store the fish in the water. This will allow the fish to pass any remaining muck out of their system before you prepare it.
Farmed catfish will not have this problem at all, and are often said to have a mild and sweet taste. Perfect for fried fish sandwiches!
While catfish are known to scavenge for food on the bottom, this is far from the only method they use to eat.
And even if it was, it hardly matters at all when it comes to the taste of their meat.
As long as the water’s clean and you know how to prepare it, wild-caught catfish are delicious and nutritious to consume.
Store-bought farmed catfish can offer an even safer bet on clean and tasty fish to cook if you want to make doubly sure.
Southern-style recipes are my personal favorite and are readily available online for the aspiring seafood chef to try out.
So put a grasshopper on your hook and put a bib around your neck; you’re going to want both to enjoy a catfish feast!
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