The Catfish Man called last week. He was not happy. Seems I insulted his bewhiskered beauties. Called them "trashfish" is what I did. I might as well have said his kid was ugly and his dog couldn't fetch.
"There is no finer fighting or eating fish than channel cats in the Potomac," said Charlie Taylor, who has caught every kind of fish that swims in our river, including the aristocratic bass. But give him a choice and he prefers the company of the common cat. "People just have wrong ideas about these fish."
Catfish are the Rodney Dangerfields of the fish world. They get no respect, even from other fish. Put channel cat in a cooler with white perch or black bass and they will set high jump records trying to escape.
Part of their image problem has to do with their habit of feeding off the bottom, down near the muck where dead things and heavy metals lie. Then there is the snob factor. Because catfish are relatively easy to catch from shore, they are a favorite of the poor. But mostly, catfish are looked down on because of the way they look.
"They don't call them catfish because they have whiskers," says my friend Tranek, a magazine editor who is by trade extremely wary of slandering anything that walks, swims or crawls. "It's because they look like something the cat dragged in."
Excuse me, Charlie, but catfish are abnormally ugly. They have wide, flat, prehistoric heads, beady eyes and mottled grey bodies. If the mafia ever got down to playing dirty, it would forget horse heads and leave dead catfish in the beds of their enemies.
"They're not the prettiest fish around," concedes Taylor, 43. "But the thing I like about them is the fight. They are a bulldogging fish. Pure power."
Taylor is telling me all this on his 19-foot, 140-horsepower fishing boat. We have just left a Maine Avenue marina for an afternoon of catfishing. And the catfish we are after are the monster channel cats that grow as big as 30 pounds in the Potomac.
The catfish hole is off the Alexandria shore near National Airport. We will get there later. First we cruise north to Fletcher's Boat House, where small herring are jumping out of the water. The herring will be used as bait for the catfish. Taylor doesn't use any bait to catch the herring, just shiny gold hooks.
"Some people think I'm a little crazy for the way I do some things," he says after we have caught 20 herring in 15 minutes. "But as long as it works, I don't mind."
Taylor is a big, green-eyed story teller who had never fished until he was 37. Then he was hooked worse than any fish he's ever snagged. Now he works nights as a postal clerk in Springfield and fishes about four days a week.
"My wife says a fisherman is a jerk at one end of a line waiting for a jerk at the other. And she's right," he says. Taylor tried to get interest his wife interested in fishing. A few years ago he got her as close as an indoor boat show. But while she was climbing onto one of the boats, she slipped and broke her foot.
Taylor hires himself out as a fishing guide. He will take customers almost any place for any kind of fish. What he really likes to do is take them many places for many kinds of fish.
"I'm a fisherman. I don't care what's pulling on the other end of the line as long as it's something," he says as we leave a cove on the Washington side of the Potomac and head for the catfish hole. We have been fishing for three hours and caught three species of fish: bass, white perch and herring.
"Now we get the big ones," Taylor says as he drops anchor below the Alexandria Power Plant. River water is used to cool the coal-fired turbines, then is spit back into the Potomac. Catfish take advantage of its unseasonable warmth to spawn.
We are using light spinning rods with four- and six-pound test line, three-ounce surf weights and cut up herring as bait. The catfish like it. On Taylor's first cast he hooks a seven-pound cat that bends his rod like a pretzel.
My first cat gets close enough to see the boat, then dives for the bottom just as I'm reeling it in. The line snaps. Minutes later I get another. This one I play with more respect.
"Bring that old trashfish over here," says Taylor, holding a net in the water and grinning like a Cheshire cat.
In two hours we have more than a dozen channel cats. The biggest weighs about 10 pounds. My arms are weary from the work. They will be wearier after I have skinned the cats and cut them into filets. And yes, they are fine eating fish. Taylor volunteers his favorite catfish recipe: dip the filets into one-third cup of milk and one-third cup of beer, then roll in flour. Deepfry them quickly in oil until the filets float to the top.
"I usually tell people they are boneless chicken until after they've finished eating," says the Catfish Man. "Then I surprise them."