Have a Hankering for Catfish? Get your fryin’ pan ready for Missouri farms’ summer harvest

Living next to North America’s biggest river certainly does have its advantages. If you want a straight shot to New Orleans, the mighty Mississippi is the perfect conduit. If you are looking down from the top of The Arch, it makes the view all the more majestic. And if you are a fisherman, the waters are teeming with delicious fresh-water catfish that seafood aficionados would swoon over.

Or would they?

In truth, most of the catfish that find their way to a Mississippi River fisherman’s line aren’t for eating, and when you bite into a tasty catfish filet, rest assured that your mouthful was bred in a farm where catfish are grown to be eaten.

Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute in Indianola, Miss., said that U.S. farm-raised catfish are the most natural choice for fish consumption. “U.S. farm-raised catfish are by far the purest, healthiest product,” he said. “Raising them is a science, not just something caught out of the wild.”

Phil Waddell loves catfish. Off of an idyllic dirt road in rural Frankford, Mo., he used to raise hogs at his farm in this miniscule northern Missouri town, but after he retired from the pig-farming business, he switched to the unusual job of raising catfish, which he’d been doing part time for over 25 years. “I always loved to fish, even as a little boy,” Waddell said.

The catfish that Waddell and catfish farmers like him raise are the kind that you can sink your teeth into. They’ve been raised their whole lives in acre-sized ponds, and they’ve been exposed to adequate sun and oxygen.

The general complaint about Mississippi River catfish is that they taste muddy. Although this may seem obvious of seafood from the “muddy Mississippi,” the sedimentary taste of your catfish has less to do with the water than with the catfish’s diet. Waddell said, “Catfish are more of a bottom feeder. With sewage and everything else in the river, it all affects the taste. River fish have chemicals in them that you shouldn’t eat.”

The catfish on his Frankford farm are fed commercial feed made of soy, corn and other grains. Like any other animal raised for its meat, he said, catfish taste better when they stick to grains and stay away from ingesting unnatural elements.

From the pond to your plate, this fish takes two and a half years to reach 3 pounds, the optimal size for consumption. Like any fish, catfish begin as eggs. The female catfish has the ability to hold her eggs until the water temperature is most favorable –
about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the temperature is just right, the female lays the eggs, and the male then fertilizes them. The distributed eggs, totaling thousands of rows of little fish, create what Waddell described as a “black mess,” but it’s only about a week until the eggs hatch into tiny catfish.

The catfish eggs typically hatch between April and June, depending on the water temperature. By autumn the baby catfish have evolved into “fingerlings” – a term for when the catfish have roughly reached the size of a person’s finger. This is the stage when the catfish are at the best possible size to be used to stock ponds.

Then the winter comes. For a catfish farmer, there’s not much to do in the winter except hope that the catfish are feeding on what’s already in the pond. The catfish spend the winter dormant, and they scavenge their food in the meantime. When the ice melts from the pond in the spring, the fingerlings have grown to be six inches long.

Summer is harvest time for fully grown catfish. Waddell drops nets into each of his ponds and dips out a manageable amount of the whiskered fish, harvesting about 1,000 pounds of catfish each summer.

If you’re craving the mouth-watering crunch of some deep-fried catfish, just take a drive up north to Waddell’s farm. You’ll recognize his gravel driveway off County Road 1 by the sign with a hand-drawn catfish. He filets, treats and packages his fish himself, and for the price tag of only $3 per pound, catfish is the perfect warm-weather delicacy. You can contact Waddell at 573.784.2655.

As long as you’re on the road, pass through St. Louis and stop at Norton’s Café in Soulard, where you can order up a plate of fried or blackened catfish. If you’re feeling particularly catfish-crazy, stay in your car and make Cape Girardeau your destination. Broussard’s Cajun Cuisine downtown on the bank of the Mississippi makes a mean fried catfish as well.

Waddell said the fish taste best simply battered in flour and cornmeal and fried. “You don’t need [extra sauces] unless you’ve got fish out of the river,” Waddell said. “If they come out of good water and good feed, they’re hard to beat.”