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MarshBunny Notes
The St. Johns River The Intracoastal and Beyond
Armored Catfish

Lately we've seen groups of fishermen who throw cast nets to catch their fish. Cast nets are used on the other river (the Indian River, about 10 miles to the east), but fishing on the St. Johns is normally done by cane pole, rod and reel, or trot line.

You can catch bass, crappie and various other fish with a rod and if you want catfish or turtle you run a trot line. But what do you catch with a cast net?

casting nets on the St. Johns
Casting nets on the St. Johns River.

Curiousity overcame us one day and we approached a boatload of fishermen. The groups fishing by cast net appear to be mostly itinerant crop workers from Mexico and South America, but we were lucky enough to approach a group who spoke some english.

They told us they were catching "Armored Catfish". We thought there must be a language problem - we've been on the river a long time and never heard of an Armored Catfish from anyone - but they had some they had already caught. Sure enough, Armored Catfish!!

Channel Catfish
Channel Catfish
Note the ambitious pussycat in the background!

A regular catfish has a very sleek, black skin - no scales, that's why you have to skin a catfish, not scale it (that's where the old saying "more than one way to skin a cat" comes from, not from killing off the barn cats).

A yellow-bellied catfish (yes, it actually has a yellow belly) is rather small - only a couple of pounds - but very sweet meat. Channel cats can get quite large. The largest I've seen come out of the St. Johns was about 32 lbs. The biggest one I ever caught was 17 lbs...he made several good meals!

The very biggest catfish can start to taste a little muddy (after all, they are bottom feeders!), but cut into nuggets, breaded, and fried they are delicious. Here's my recipe (which is also what I use for 'gator nuggets).

Meanwhile, back at the point...Armored Catfish are quite small, but they really do looked armored! They have the whiskers, mouth, spines and coloring of a regular catfish, but instead of the smooth skin they have what looks like armor plates!

Armored Catfish
An Armored Catfish

The biggest I've seen couldn't be more than 8" long. We were told that they since they won't bite at a hook the only way to catch them is by cast net. (Which would explain why we had never caught one on a rod or trot line before.)

We were surprised to see these fish since we had had no clue they were ever there. And how did these people come to know about them? One man told us that these fish had been brought up from South America in some sort of experiment that didn't quite work out as expected. (The language barrier kept us from getting a really good version of this story, but I'll ask again when I can.)

<<< Sidenote: a reader sent me an email saying that these fish were being raised in a fishery in or near Homestead, Florida when hurricane Andrew struck. The storm damage released the fish into the wild and they rapidly moved out in all directions. >>>

"So, what do you do with them?" was the next question. It looks like a lot of trouble to catch these little things. They must really taste good to be worth all that work!

Here's what we got:

1. Cut off the head and fins and gut it.

2. Boil it. After boiling the skin will peel off.

3. Cook it up in a stew with salt, pepper and curry powder. The curry powder was stressed. Don't forget the curry powder.

They say there isn't anything in that river that can't be eaten, if you know how to cook it, but some of it seems like an awful lot of work. (Find more delicious (?) recipes here.)

A reader sent in a photo of a different variety of armored catfish:

Armored Sailfin Catfish
Caught by Patrick Luther, photo by Linda Luther.

"My husband caught an armored catfish yesterday in "Farm 13" part of the stick marsh fishing area in North Indian River county. He caught it with a cricket on the bottom. We are natives of this county, since 1945 and neither of us had ever seen one of these. The one he caught must be a monster of it's breed. We aren't cooking it. Thanks for having a picture on your website. My husband GUESSED that it might be an Armored Catfish since he had heard of them. He came home telling me he caught a fish that looked like a cross between a catfish and an armadillo...

... By the way, I think there is a strong possibility that that is an Oronoco Sailfish Armored Catfish. Even though this fish was very dark, it did have a spotted look to it also. It had NO "whiskers" and was just over 14" long."

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