Southern Fried Topsail Saltwater Catfish

Despite their reputation as trash fish, a properly prepared gafftopsail cat will hold its own at the table against just about any fish that swims

By author of Timber 2 Table Wild Game Recipes Print Recipe
prep time
cook time
4-5
serves

Saltwater cats get a bad rap. They will wear out baits intended for flashier species like trout, pompano, redfish, and flounder. They are slimy beyond compare, and if you get stung by one, it hurts. I mean it really hurts. For days. 

For years, I’d use a pair of pliers to unhook and drop the fish back into the water without touching it. 

Then I talked to Apalachicola-based fishing guide Jerome Brown.

“You’re missing out if you don’t eat the big sailcats,” said Brown. “The secret is to bleed the fish well before you skin it. When I catch one I want to eat, I cut the tail off and drop the fish into a bucket or livewell full of water. The fish bleeds out almost immediately, leaving a nice, clean-tasting fillet.” 

A plateful of fried sailcat over cheese grits is as good as any freshwater catfish.

So we tried his advice. It works. I’ll serve a golden fried fillet of gafftopsail catfish (Bagre marinus) against any Gulf fish that swims. I like them even better than their freshwater cousins. 

Bleed the fish out in a bucket or livewell before cleaning.

Once the fish has bled out, dropping it into a cooler of ice makes cleaning easier later. I like to keep a towel handy to help me grip the fish (remember the slime I mentioned earlier). Start by gripping the long top barb with a pair of pliers and cutting it off by sliding the knife under the fin, then snapping it off at the spine with the pliers. 

Remove the toxic barbs.

Next, fillet just like you would any catfish. Don’t forget the belly meat on a big topsail. Just like their freshwater flathead cousins, a good-sized topsail will have a thick slab of tasty belly meat nearly as big as the side fillets. 

(Fish in style: Men’s Realtree Aspect Original Fishing Performance Long Sleeve Shirt)

After slicing away the skin on a topsail, you will notice a strip of dark red meat along the lateral line. Cut that away. As with a lot of fish, leaving that dark meat will give the fish a muddy or fishy flavor.

Trim away the dark red meat.

Ingredients

2 to 3 pounds of topsail catfish fillets

Everglades All-Purpose Seasoning

2 cups of your favorite cornmeal-based fish breading 

Peanut oil for frying

Cooking Instructions

Pat the fillets dry. Season them well with Everglades All-Purpose to taste.

Season the fillets before breading.

Dredge the catfish in your favorite cornmeal-based breading mix or cornmeal seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper, as desired. 

Roll the fillets in your favorite cornmeal-based breading mixture.

Heat 1/2 inch of peanut oil in a cast-iron skillet until it reaches about 350 degrees. Gently lower the catfish into the hot oil, frying in batches so as not to overcrowd the skillet. Fry to a golden brown on one side, then flip. Total cook time is about 6 to 9 minutes per batch, depending on fish thickness. Remove to a paper-towel-lined platter while you continue to fry the remaining fish.

Fry the fish in hot oil until crispy and flaky.

Have a recipe you would like to suggest as a feature? Email us and let us know!