Public Enemy #1: Hardhead Catfish

Jason Ferguson | Ecosystem Leader, Lower Laguna Madre Field Station
Public Enemy #1:  Hardhead Catfish

Table 1.  Top ten fish species caught in TPWD gillnets from 1983-2022.  Number in parentheses represent the mean number of fish caught per hour.

You would be hard pressed to come up with a fish species more reviled by recreational anglers on the Texas coast than the hardhead catfish. I would be willing to bet that anglers from other Gulf states feel the same way since these fish are common throughout the Gulf of Mexico and its tributaries. Why are these fish so despised? For starters, they have sharp bony spines that can lock in place, capable of inflicting deep and painful wounds. The objects folks have reported catfish spines being able to puncture is the stuff of legend. Most anglers, as well as Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) Coastal Fisheries staff, have felt the sting of their spines at one point or another. Anglers also complain about how abundant hardhead catfish are and how they cannot get away from them when trying to catch their targeted species. Typically, an abundant, easy to catch fish is a good thing. However, there is a perception that these catfish do not make good table fare and are therefore not worth keeping. This view has been disputed by a November 2009TSFM article, wherein a blind taste test revealed that hardhead catfish could not be distinguished from other more commonly consumed catfish species. Despite this, their difficulty in handling and low meat yield serve as deterrents for anglers from keeping them. Due to this lack of interest from commercial and recreational anglers, few fisheries managers have taken a close look at their population trends to examine just how abundant they are compared to other species in our coastal waters. Therefore, I thought it might be interesting to take a dive into our TPWD database to shed some light on hardhead catfish populations along the Texas coast.

TPWD’s gill net sampling program targets sub-adult and adult fish and provides a good indication of what is currently in the fishery. Catch rates are calculated by dividing the number of fish by the amount of time the gill net was in the water, resulting in a catch rate of number of fish caught per hour. This is commonly referred to as a catch per unit effort (CPUE). Generally, higher catch rates are indicative of higher abundances. Based on the mean catch rates from our annual coastwide gill net data from 1983 - 2022, you can see that hardhead catfish are indeed the most encountered fish species on the coast (Table 1). However, the gap between hardhead catfish and other commonly caught fish species has narrowed over time, with black drum surpassing hardhead catfish in 2022. Looking at the catch rate trend for hardhead catfish, notice how the numbers have been cyclical over the years. After a peak in the late 1980s to early 1990s their numbers dropped rather dramatically, gradually increased until 2013, and then dropped again. Interestingly, hardhead catfish catch rates have been trending down, indicating there are fewer now than in prior decades. Whether this trend is something that will continue or eventually increase as it has in the past, remains to be seen.

As many of you are aware, TPWD also conducts coastwide creel surveys to collect data from anglers on fish they are harvesting. Anglers are asked a series of questions, and all retained fish are counted and measured, even hardhead catfish. Catch rates (number of fish per angler hour) are calculated by dividing the number of fish landed by the product of the number of anglers times the number of hours fished. The long-term trend for hardhead catfish harvested by anglers is, not surprisingly, very low. However, it does appear there was some interest by anglers in retaining hardheads back in the 1980s and early 1990s, followed by a decline, and remaining relatively stable since. This is perhaps due to anglers transitioning from a generalist approach in fishing effort to targeting specific species.

Should anglers be rejoicing or concerned that hardhead catch rates are in a state of decline? The truth is that hardheads are an important part of the ecosystem. They are opportunistic consumers and help keep Texas bays clean. At many fish cleaning stations along the coast, hardhead catfish can be seen devouring discarded fish carcasses like a school of piranhas. Additionally, many anglers can probably recall taking young kids fishing for the first time and keeping them engaged by catching hardheads when nothing else would bite. I have witnessed, on more than one occasion, young anglers having an absolute blast catching one hardhead after the other off a public dock. Perhaps many people would not be the avid anglers they are today if it were not for hardhead catfish getting them hooked on fishing in the first place. So, the next time you catch one, maybe take a second to admire them for what they do before tossing them back. Just be careful not to get poked because they certainly will not be admiring you (see photos of proper handling technique). If you still despise catching them, make sure to fish as often as you can to take advantage of their current relatively low numbers, because it may not remain that way for long.