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Local fisherman gains new appreciation for catfish during his travels of the South and Midwest

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - White CatfishFew fish are as overlooked and maligned as the bullhead catfish. These diminutive slimeballs represent a total of seven species concentrated in a native range primarily within the Southeastern United States: black bullhead, brown bullhead, flat bullhead, snail bullhead, spotted bullhead, white catfish and yellow bullhead.

I grew up catching brown and yellow bullhead in Oregon, but I found the other, less widely introduced species over the years. Blacks came first in Utah and then again in Texas. Whites came first from Washington, D.C. and then California, Illinois and Alabama. Spotteds came from Florida's panhandle. Finally, flats and snails came from North Carolina to complete my set, and I sort of forgot about them afterwards.

After all, they've been introduced far outside their range and are highly invasive — particularly in the state of Oregon — where they displace the native sculpins that fill a similar ecological niche but reach only a fraction of the size of the bullheads.

Though I spent plenty of summer nights fishing for bullheads in my home waters, it was always because there was nothing better available. It was also more of a social event than serious fishing. We'd make a small fire on the gravel or muddy bank, soak some worms, roast some marshmallows with friends and kill every one of the invasive mudcats we caught to save its weight in native fishes. Some of my friends ate them, but that's a mistake I only made once or twice. In the less-than-pristine waters we always caught them, they tasted muddy, the meat often covered in parasites.

It wasn't until I was 30 years old, fishing in Florida this year that I realized some people not only seriously pursue them, but actually prize them.

Prize

Mudcats, cat-fesh, bullheads, slimers and a host of other local names all offer valid table fare across much of their native range. Though they can tolerate an array of water conditions and even salinities (I've caught brown bullhead in Miami's primarily saltwater canals), they thrive in other areas, too.

Though most farmed catfish you'll see at the store is channel catfish, many parts of the American Midwest and South have small wild-caught catfish industries, which often sell bullheads along with the larger channels, flatheads and blues. In most states, it's illegal to sell sport-caught fish, but commercial fishing licenses open up many doors and many more wallets.

In fact, according to the aquaculture tracking site, IntraFish, America's eighth-favorite seafood to consume is catfish.

While traveling through the South — particularly Mississippi, where per capita catfish consumption is the highest in the U.S. — you can find catfish almost everywhere. Every diner and American restaurant offers catfish, many boasting "All You Can Eat Catfish" on a certain day of the week.

There are fast food chains you won't find anywhere else that sell catfish by the boatload.

I've eaten fried catfish purchased at convenience stores and gas stations when fishing out in the sticks on numerous occasions that wasn't half bad.

Usually it's been channel catfish, but a couple of times, it has been bullheads, fried and battered so evenly that it all tastes the same.

Though I still won't go out of my way to catch bullheads, I've come to respect them a lot more when in their native range, and if fresh saltwater fish isn't available, and the bullheads are coming from clean water, I'm more than willing to chow down.

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