LET US contemplate the catfish.
He can be big. The blue catfish and the flathead catfish have been known to exceed 150 pounds. A Eurasian cousin, the wels, has weighed in at more than 500 pounds.
He can be ugly. The flathead and the bullhead catfish, for example, live up (or down) to their names. Then there's the notorious albino walking catfish of Florida. He's no beauty either.
He can be dangerous. Most catfish have a toxin that is carried on the tips of the spines of their dorsal fin (that's the one on the back) and pectoral fins (the ones on the sides, just behind the gills). When the catfish is threatened, the fins lock straight out and can inflict a painful puncture wound that can get infected if not cleaned immediately.
The tiny madtom, a North American species that hides under rocks in small brooks and streams, has particularly venomous spines that, according to John Madson in the September 1984 issue of the Smithsonian magazine, give "an almost electric jolt that produces a dull, throbbing ache that may last for hours."
So why would anyone want to catch a catfish?
"Some people are happy to catch anything," says Dan Ward of Fletcher's Boat House, noting that many people who fish the Potomac aren't very experienced and that the catfish is an eager feeder.
"And there are some people who come here just to catch catfish. They would rather catch catfish than anything else," Ward says.
On the other hand, there are those who wouldn't touch them with a 10-foot pole. But they obviously don't know what a tasty meal the catfish makes.
The toxin from its spines does not contaminate the flesh of the fish. In fact, according to Edward C. Migdalski, author of the "Angler's Guide to the Fresh Water Sport Fishes," all of the more than 2,000 catfish species in the world are edible. And, he says, unless the fish is caught in particularly muddy waters, its meat is firm and delicately flavored.
Now if you don't believe this, drop by a Church's Fried Chicken outlet and taste it for yourself. Church's recently added commercially raised catfish to its menu. It's a quick way to find out if you like it.
It is not fun to clean a catfish. Catfish don't have scales, but the skin must be removed. This is usually done by pulling it off with a pair of pliers after shallow cuts have been made as if to fillet it. This means the head or tail must be held down by something. Either a clipboard or an icepick will do.
After the skin is removed, finish filleting it. While all of this is going on, the catfish's gills may continue to move, even though he is long dead. This is a reflex action, but is nonetheless disconcerting.
Of the 24 freshwater species in North America, the ones caught most often around here are the blue and the channel catfish, with an occasional brown or yellow bullhead or a mudcat, according to Ward.
A catfish has character, Ward says.
"Some of the blue and channel cats caught here look real sporty. And some look like they have had a hard life. Some catfish seem to almost talk to you," Ward says, imitating the grunting noises some catfish will make.
Ward advises using cut bait, especially cut herring, to catch catfish. The catfish is a bottom feeder, so that's where you put the bait.
Some people say fresh chicken livers make the best bait, but if you use chicken livers, you're liable to catch rockfish. That's what we did recently, and we were pretty surprised.
But Ward and Joe Fletcher say that's not unusual at all. Ward thinks that the rockfish are attracted to the blood off the fresh chicken livers.
You can catch catfish all year long, but the prime time is April through July. They go deeper when it gets hotter, Ward says.
Joe Fletcher remembers a 28-pound catfish being brought out of the Potomac, but nowadays the big ones rarely exceed 16 pounds. Ten-mmon, Ward says. And the big ones are exciting to catch.
So try it. WHAT'S THE CATCH?
Here's what local anglers have been catching lately, and what you might catch this weekend. Just keep in mind one thing: Fish have tails; they move.
POTOMAC RIVER, ETC.
A 35-pound carp was caught in the Tidal Basin Sunday by William Walker of Southeast D.C., reports Ward of Fletcher's. Walker used dough balls.
Before the water got high, a 43/4-pound largemouth was hauled in below Little Falls by Ross Tuttle, Ward says.
Unfortunately for the endangered rockfish, striper fishing remains good. Please try to limit your catches to between three to five rockfish over 14 or 15 inches. Ward reports that rockfish between eight and nine pounds are being taken. VIRGINIA
LAKE ANNA -- Channel cats are the big thing right now in Lake Anna, says Peter Sprague of Lake Anna Sporting Goods in Mineral, Va. One angler carried 53 pounds of channel cats into Sprague's store last weekend, he says. Sprague recommends using live baits to catch the channel cats, especially minnows. Stink baits, he says, aren't doing the trick.
Crappie are still being caught in large numbers in Lake Anna, Sprague says, but not in large sizes. Anglers also are going after bluegill and carp. The bass fishing is slow, Sprague says. The ones being caught range from two to four pounds. As hot as the weather is getting, "it's harder to catch them," Sprague says.
OCCOQUAN RIVER -- Plenty of pan-size catfish between one and five pounds are being caught, reports Phillip Mello of The Lynn Co. in Occoquan. The stripers are in, too. Keep in mind that the lower Potomac, including the Occoquan River, has a limit of five rockfish a day, between 14 and 34 inches.
OCCOQUAN RESERVOIR -- The largemouth bass action has picked up, but crappie action has dropped off, Mello says.
THE RAPPAHANNOCK RIVER "was stained up pretty bad" last weekend, says Karl Gentry of Chesley's Tackle Shop in Fredericksburg. If it clears up this weekend, the smallmouth bass fishing should be "real good" three to five miles up river from Fredericksburg.
Largemouth fishing has been "excellent" downriver from Fredericksburg, Gentry says, adding that the better catches, in the two-to four-pound range, have been about 20 miles downriver.
Catfish action is good, too, along with striper action. Gentry says three 10-pound stripers were brought in to Chesley's last weekend to be weighed. MARYLAND
LAKE CLOPPER -- Anglers coming into the Rockville Trading Post report that the best fishing for them right now is in this lake in Seneca Creek State Park in upper Montgomery County, says Monty Embrey. They're catching big bluegill with earthworms and curly tail grubs, he says.
TRIADELPHIA RESERVOIR -- The smallmouth bass are hitting, Embrey reports. Use minnows and crayfish, he recommends. Artificial lures aren't working as well on the smallmouth as live bait, he says. Crappie are small but active, and the best baits for them are little white and yellow jigs or curly tail grubs, Embrey says.
SOUTHERN MARYLAND -- Ken Lamb of the Tackle Box in Lexington Park recommends using live crickets and night crawlers for the crappie and bluegill that he says are "very active now" throughout southern Maryland. He and Embrey report that farm ponds are yielding nice bass right now.
It's snapper-blue time in the Bay. These smaller blues (in the 11/2- are all over the place, and the only thing that will keep you from catching all you want is bad weather and rough waves.
Where are they? Just look for birds. They'll be feeding on small baitfish that are on the surface trying to escape an attack of bluefish from below.
Last weekend we ran into a flock of birds frantically feeding in an area near the target ship about halfway between Point Lookout and Smith Island. By the time we trolled through them the first time, coming up with several blues, about five boats, including several charter boats and a headboat loaded with anglers, arrived on the scene. In other words, even charter captains are on the lookout for birds.
The best bait? When the blues are feeding on the surface, anything would probably work. But we had the best luck with yellow bucktails.
The trout fishing reportedly has been good in the Bay, although we didn't try for any. The day we were out there, it was just too rough to bottom fish.
Spot and perch fishing have been off lately, reports Lamb of the Tackle Box. Rains have muddied the bottom. But a couple of calm days of sunshine should clear things right up.