Can You Eat Saltwater Catfish? Are They Poisonous?

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Catfish are generally considered great eats, but with that being said, when most people think of catfish, they usually think about freshwater catfish. Sure, freshwater catfish is quite delicious, but what about its salty counterpart? Yes, indeed there are saltwater catfish. So, what do you do if you hook one of these guys? Can you eat saltwater catfish?

Yes, Saltwater catfish is perfectly edible. That being said, there are many people out there who dislike the taste and texture of it. Generally speaking, most people won’t eat saltwater catfish, but this doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t. After all, it really all just comes down to personal preference, and if you like the taste of it, then good for you.


Is Saltwater Catfish Edible Or Poisonous?

hardhead saltwater catfish

What is interesting to note is that saltwater catfish are both edible and poisonous. However, these two things are very different.

Saltwater catfish is poisonous due to the fact that it has very sharp spines on its back that secrete poison or venom.

These poisonous barbs or spikes are designed simply as a self-defense method. If a creature attacks a saltwater catfish, it will raise its spines and try to sting its attacker.

Just in case it matters, the sting of a saltwater catfish is much like a bee sting, but generally more painful.

However, this does not mean that a saltwater catfish is poisonous to eat or inedible. Simply put, you aren’t going to eat those rock-hard spines anyway.

The actual meat of the saltwater catfish is perfectly edible and not poisonous, so as long as you don’t try eating those spines, you should be totally fine.

So while saltwater catfish do have venom in their spines and are therefore poisonous, they are not poisonous to eat.

Do Saltwater Catfish Taste Good?

fried catfish on a plate

As we mentioned in our opening paragraph, the simple reality here is that whether or not you think saltwater catfish tastes good is nothing more than a matter of personal preference.

If the saltwater catfish lives in clean waters and eats a lot of fresh live foods, then it should have a fairly mild taste.

Most people say that it tastes like other ocean fish with white meat, although generally quite mild, with a good bit of that ocean saltiness. Some people say that saltwater catfish tastes kind of like ocean trout.

However, if the catfish live in dirty waters or ate a lot of garbage, which catfish tend to do, then chances are that it’s going to have a very strong, muddy, and fishy flavor.

If you know what freshwater catfish tastes like, then the taste of saltwater catfish is somewhat similar, but of course a lot saltier and a bit fishier too. 

Types Of Saltwater Catfish

There are a few different types of saltwater catfish out there, although there are two very common ones that most should be familiar with.

There is the sail catfish, AKA the gafftop catfish, and the hardhead catfish. If you fish in the oceans off the coast of North America, these are the two types of ocean catfish that you are likely to see.

Hardhead Catfish

The hardhead catfish can be found off the US and Canadian east coasts, all the way from the Northwestern Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico, with the Florida Keys being a hotspot.

This catfish has a very hard and bony plate that goes all the way from between the eyes to behind the dorsal fin, hence its name.

On average, the hardhead catfish will wait up to 3 pounds, although they have been known to grow up to 12 pounds and up to 28 inches in length.

Hardhead catfish preferred to live near the shore, especially in brackish estuaries with sandy or muddy bottoms but will move to deeper waters during the colder months, although they will usually move out into the ocean, not upstream towards freshwater.

Just like other catfish, hardhead catfish have four spikes or barbells located under the mouth. However, unlike other catfish, the barbs on a hardhead catfish are extremely hard and strong.

These barbs are capable of inflicting very serious damage, and this is the case even if you are wearing thick gloves. 

Can You Eat Hardhead Catfish?

Yes, technically speaking, you can eat hardhead catfish. There is nothing wrong with them and they aren’t dangerous to consume.

That said, some people really just don’t like the taste of saltwater catfish. Because hardhead catfish scavenge in mudflats in saltwater, they have both a very salty and fishy flavor.

Moreover, they can also be very hard to catch, not to mention that they don’t have much meat on them either. Most people will choose to stay away from eating hardhead catfish.

The Sail Catfish

The sail catfish is another saltwater catfish that is made of to the Atlantic Coast. They live in more or less the same waters as the hardhead catfish. However, they also live further down south, even so far as the Caribbean Sea.

You can easily tell the difference between a sale catfish and other catfish due to the very long dorsal spine which it has, along with a very deep forked tail.

This type of catfish is generally a bit smaller than the hardhead catfish, usually topping out at around 2 pounds, although a record 9.9 pound sail catfish has been found. The sail catfish usually does not grow any longer than 16 inches.

The spines located on the back of this fish are extremely poisonous and can inflict serious damage if touched.

The pain caused by the sting of a sail catfish is known to be excruciating.

This catfish likes sticking to the shallows along the shore, especially in mangroves and lagoons that provide cover from hungry mouths. 

Can You Eat Gafftop Catfish?

The story with Gafftop catfish is the same as with hardhead catfish. The Gafftop catfish is another saltwater catfish species that scavenge for food in saltwater mud flats.

This often results in a very fishy and salty flavor that many people unenjoyable. Then, just like with hardheads, gafftops are relatively hard to catch and contain fairly little meat, therefore usually not making them worth the effort.

That said, some people do say that it tastes similar to other white fish caught in saltwater, such as haddock or cod, albeit a bit saltier.

Saltwater Catfish vs Freshwater Catfish

freshwater catfish

When it comes to the differences between saltwater, catfish, and freshwater catfish, there are a few notable ones worth talking about.

Of course, one of the main differences between these two types of catfish is the taste that they have.

Freshwater catfish tends to have a much milder taste, whereas the saltwater variety has a much fuller taste, or in other words, it is a bit fishier, not to mention that it of course also has that salty or briny flavor courtesy of the ocean.

Another major difference between these two types of fish is that saltwater catfish tend to be a lot smaller than freshwater catfish.

Now, there are freshwater catfish and saltwater catfish that are the same size, but generally speaking there are just many more varieties of freshwater catfish than there are saltwater catfish, and therefore there are also more ones that are larger.

Moreover, although both freshwater and saltwater catfish are venomous, the simple reality is that the saltwater variety tends to be much more so.

Not only are saltwater catfish a bit more venomous than the freshwater variety, but they also have a penchant to stay much more.

In other words, saltwater catfish are notorious for stinging you when you go to pick them up.

So, if you want to explore new tastes and try some salty catfish, then all the power to you, but just be careful when you go to pick them up! 

How To Catch Saltwater Catfish

If you plan on catching saltwater catfish, one of the most important things to realize is that you need the right gear.

Now, catfish usually don’t get overly large, especially saltwater catfish, so you don’t need to worry about getting some mammoth saltwater fishing reel that is made out of some space-age metal that can only be found on Star Wars spaceships.

Although you don’t need a very large or ultra strong rod to reel in a saltwater catfish, you do need one that is intended for use with saltwater.

Whatever you do, do not try fishing for a saltwater catfish in saltwater using a freshwater fishing rod or reel. Freshwater reels just are not designed to handle the corrosive nature of saltwater and will rust, sometimes even after just one use.

That said, in terms of strength, you do want to go for something that can hold at least 50 pounds (if not more) because catfish are known for being big time fighters.

If you are in doubt, you are best off going for something that is high-quality, because a good rod and reel that you use for saltwater catfish fishing can also be used to reel in other much larger saltwater fish too.

Whatever you get, be sure that your rod is able to handle a good deal of impact, that it is strong, relatively sensitive, and able to deal with saltwater.

For the reel, because catfish are known to be bait stealers, you do want something with a high gear ratio so you can reel them in quickly. Having a good drag system to deal with fighting fish is recommended too.

In terms of how to fish for saltwater catfish, it’s really no different than angling for the freshwater kind. These fish like shallow waters, they like lots of cover, and they like feeding from the bottom.

Therefore, you want to use a bottom rig along with some cut bait or native bait (bait that the catfish is already used to seeing and eating).

Moreover, the best times to catch saltwater catfish are when the tide is low, and when it is evening or nighttime, with nighttime low tide fishing usually being the most successful. 

How To Clean Saltwater Catfish

One of the reasons why a lot of people don’t bother with saltwater catfish is because for one they do have very tough skin, and second, they are extremely slimy. There is also the fact that saltwater catfish has very little meat on it.

Most of the saltwater catfish is bone, cartilage, and other such things with very little of it being edible meat.

Saltwater catfish were also quite dangerous to clean because of the sharp barbells on the hardhead catfish as well as the extremely poisonous spines on both types of saltwater catfish.

With all of that being said, beside the fact that you have to be very careful in terms of those spines, cleaning a saltwater catfish is no different than cleaning any other catfish or any other fish for that matter.

Most catfish cleaning experts would agree that the best way to go about this is to simply hold the head of the catfish with your left hand, and then using a very sharp knife make, one long cut from head to tail along one side of the spine, while taking great care to avoid those poisonous spikes.

Once you have made the initial cut, you can then simply peel the skin away from the flesh and then cut the flesh into filets like you would with any other fish.

Of course, before you do any of that, you do want to cut open the stomach and remove all of the guts and innards as you are supposed to do with any other fish.

To deal with all of that sliding, wearing rubber gloves with good texture on them is going to help, and having a hose nearby to hose it off isn’t a bad idea either.

How to Cook Saltwater Catfish

In terms of cooking saltwater catfish, you can bake pan fry deep fry, and barbecue it, although as is the case with catfish, most people would agree that deep frying is the best method to choose.

With that being said, this is of course a matter of personal preference, and some people like a piece of grilled fish with some lemon juice on it more than deep fried fish with tartar sauce. It really all just depends on what you like.

3 Alternative Fish to Consider

tuna fish

In case catfish just doesn’t sound like something you want to eat, there are many other saltwater fish that are edible and delicious. 

1. Tuna

If you’re looking for very tasty yet delicate fish, particularly for something like sushi, and you have more than enough experience with fishing, then something that you want to consider angling for is a tuna.

Just keep in mind that tuna can of course be absolutely mammoth creatures that take great experience to reel in.

2. Haddock

Another great saltwater fish to go for, one with a relatively fishy yet also delicate taste is the haddock.

In terms of making fish and chips, haddock is one of the most popular choices of all.

3. Halibut

Speaking of popular choices to make fish and chips with the number one choice that most people go with is halibut. Halibut is flaky, tender and absolutely delicious. It is the number one fish for a fish and chips meal.


Conclusion: Are Saltwater Catfish Good To Eat

There you have it folks, everything you need to know about catching and eating saltwater catfish. They are safe and good to eat, if you haven’t tried eating one yet, we would recommend giving it a try. Who knows, you might really like it!


Image credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife @ FlickrCC.

Jason Downs

I created Fishtackly to share my 30 years of fishing experience and knowledge with others with the aim to help, and hopefully get more people involved and educated in this fantastic hobby that I love.