Watch the Fins
Over a 3-year-period actually raising catfish (I have always been intrigued with aquaculture), I learned some plum handy, good-to-know tips I'd like to share.
The dorsal fin and the pectoral (side) fins of all catfish (including tropical catfish) are sharp, barbed and to be avoided. Upon entering your skin, the mucous-covered protein covering the barb is sloughed off and left in the puncture wound. After the initial pain sets in, the associated infection is a real attention-getter. Saltwater catfish wounds sting a lot more than freshwater catfish (in case you were wondering) but both can very easily become infected. Believe me.
In fact, a very severe puncture wound experienced by a friend courtesy of a saltwater catfish almost caused him to pass out from the pain. Even worse (from my perspective) it ended a potentially great day on the water fishing.
So here's the best advice: avoidance is your best defense.
Stay in Control
Control the fish while the fish is on the line and while bringing it on the boat, pier, dock or shore. Don't let the fish swing about on the end of the line any longer than necessary. Get it down on the ground immediately.
If a child has the fishing pole--stop, drop and roll, then run away! (Numerous people have been finned by a swinging catfish).
I've heard tales of fins in hands, knees, thighs, and bottoms (butts and sneaker soles). There are a variety of techniques for getting hooks out of these rascals. If it is a simple lip hook, grab the hook at the shank with a pair of pliers and turn the fish upside down over the rail of the boat and give a quick shake or two. That way you never have to touch the beast.
If the catfish needs to be handled because it swallowed the hook, I immediately snip off the dorsal fin and the two pectoral fins before I handle the fish. That puts you on a level playing field. A standard pair of catfish skinning pliers works well to snip off these fins. Make sure you dispose of these removed fins properly because they are still potential hazards on the floor of your boat should you kick or step on them. Once done you can safely grab the fella and remove the hook and release the fish.
This may sound cruel for a fish you are going to release, but I have had numerous catfish get entangled in my seines when I was harvesting them and would have to remove fins to get them out of the net. Upon recapturing the fish months later, they are no worse for the wear. Although the barbed fins do not apparently grow back, the soft fin coverings do. The fish can still actively maneuver on its way without its defense mechanism (PETA folks: it is really not that bad).
The third way (aside from cutting the line which does not hurt the fish), involves decisively grabbing the fish with the thumb and ring finger behind each pectoral fin with the dorsal fin straight up between the pointer finger and middle finger. There is some risk involved in grabbing the fish like this. In fact every time I have been finned it has been doing exactly this maneuver. Hence, I strongly endorse clipping the fins. The release is done in one quick fluid motion also.
Butt Juice for Catfish Wounds?
So you've been finned? You dummy. Now what?
Of course you yell, scream, then cuss a little (or a lot). About 15 seconds later the real pain sets in, as do your second wave of curse words.
Then--and you won't believe this trick--you take the very same fish that did the evil deed (presently without its dorsal or pectoral fins because you are now a convert) and you squeeze the juice from the anus onto the finned area. Yes, rub the fish's slime from this excretion all over and into the puncture wound. It will stop hurting immediately if it is a fairly shallow puncture wound. Yes, this really works.
Now what is the chemistry behind this? I don't really know. My best scientific guess is that there is a gland that is expressed which produces some very effective neutralizing and blocking agents. Upon discussing this with other buddies over a beer or two and cleaning a few catfish, they don't bother to think too hard about it and they just call it "Catfish Butt Juice" (also known as CBJ). But, whatever school one is from--it works.
Not sure you must use the exact same catfish you were hit with (or whether any other catfish will do). All I can offer is this: if you think you have been scraped or hit, use that same catfish! And here's some more advice: keep that same catfish for at least 30 minutes because the pain comes in waves and you can reapply the CBJ. The catfish does not have to be kept alive. Nor should it be for doing this evil, evil deed.
Now what is the doctor going to say about this practice? Well you can ask him/her when you get there. I don't really know, but at the point you have been actively finned you've already got a whole lot of foreign protein directly injected into a meaty part of your body. Topically adding a little more interesting goo can't really do much more harm and, besides, it takes the pain away--guaran-damn-teed.
If the catfish is fully stuck to you, you have really screwed up. Attempt to cut the fin so you can start your next round of the genuine First Aid as you rapidly make your way to Urgent Care. A web search for first aid of catfish stings recommends submerging in hot water to deactivate the poisons. The judgement call should then be made on when to apply ice (if at all) to decrease swelling and the spread of the poisons that were not deactivated. I carry both meat tenderizer and a product called Sting-Eze which has an active ingredient of Camphor which works on a lot of other stinging insects, as well as catfish and jellyfish.
Cleaning Catfish Quickly and Easily
If you have a lot of lively catfish you need to put down all at once, put them in a cooler and drain all the water out. Then, with the plug back in the cooler, take a single 16-ounce warm beer, freshly pop it and quickly but gently pour over the fish. Then close the cooler tightly. Give it about a minute completely sealed and viola! Dead fish in less than one minute.
Now, where and when can you use this interesting fact, I don't really know. Maybe on a bet you can use this little ditty to get rid of that warm beer in your hand and have someone fetch you a cold one. My best guess on the science behind this little known phenomenon is that the CO2 causes the fish to rapid-gill, directly injecting beer and CO2 into their system.
This displaces the oxygen and some type of an embolism in the brain occurs. (I can only hope to go this way myself). My preference is to keep catfish alive as long as possible, and then quickly clean them freshly dead.
Catfish clean easiest when they are fresh. Otherwise the skin sticks to the meat when you start pulling it off. I've seen cleaning of catfish performed many different ways with some more effective than others. Here is the quickest and easiest way I've found. I can completely skin a catfish in 30 seconds, and have it filleted out (with no bones) in another 30. No fuss, no muss. The trick is finding the zippers to their little "tuxedos".
Finding the Zipper
Now this quick and easy skinning technique is also important for saltwater fishermen because if you happen to catch a small hardhead catfish while loading up on pinfish for bait, throw the catfish in your live well (with fins removed). These make great cobia bait. Prior to placing the catfish on the hook, strip a piece of skin back on both sides of the catfish approximately one-inch, same as you would if cleaning the fish.
A fully-skinned catfish can swim around in a child's wading pool for at least 5 minutes; which is where I spontaneously tossed a fish I was cleaning to deal with the emergency of my four-year-old standing in a fire ant mound. So, pulling back and leaving a one-inch flap of skin on a catfish is merely a flesh wound to these fellas.
Getting the Best Flavor
To get the best tasting catfish, assessment of the water bodies where you are fishing is important. Catfish are susceptible to nutrients in the water and when the nitrite levels are elevated it imparts a very unique and unpleasant quality to the flavor of the fish. This condition is referred to as nitrite toxicosis or brown blood disease in catfish.
There is plenty written on the subject of brown blood disease and it is easily accessible on the internet.
What information isn't available is how to check for this condition in fresh fish and at your fish market. The ability to identify this flavor in catfish comes with experience but the test is simple: from a fresh cut area running directly down the backbone, examine the condition of the fillet for color and then simply smell the fillet.
If it smells stale, muddy and earthy this flavor will be present when cooked. This is indicative of brown blood disease. This is not harmful to the consumer, but it does impart an offensive odor and renders it less than the perfect fish to enjoy at the dinner table.
Now, with your new-found interesting and bizarre knowledge of catfish--I should probably have some type of legal disclaimer here in the article. So, here it is: Always know the difference between a catfish and an attorney!
One is a scum-sucking bottom dweller and the other is, well... a fish.