Hardhead Catfish

Hardhead Sea Catfish

Hardhead Catfish. Photo by Don Abrams. Click for larger image.

Description

The Hardhead Catfish has an elongated body without scales, a forked caudal fin (tail), and a moderately flattened head with the upper jaw forming a broad arc. The mouth is inferior (located on the underside of the head). The common name is derived from a hard bony plate that from between the eyes to the dorsal fin. The back is silvery colored with blue or green and sometimes brownish tones. The underside is generally white.

PERMISSION TO USE PENDING. Source: Drew Fulton, Filming Florida.
Hardhead Catfish. Source: Drew Fulton, Filming Florida. Click for larger image.

The prominent dorsal fin and two pectoral fins have strong and sharply pointed, mucous-covered spines with serrations on the anterior (front) edges, providing the fish protection from predators, including human anglers. The dorsal spine is erect when the fish is threatened or excited. In contrast, the other fins are membranous. The dorsal fin and tail are dusky colored. The pectoral, pelvic, and anal fins are pale and may be yellowish. Females have larger pelvic fins than males.

The Hardhead Catfish has six barbels or "whiskers," two long ones just above the rear corners of the mouth and four under the chin.

The maximum reported size of a Hardhead Catfish is 27.6 inches (70.0 cm) total length and 12.2 pounds (5.5 kg). Most specimens are substantially smaller; typical fish on the Mississippi coast are 12 t0 16 inches long and weigh one to two pounds.


Gafftopsail Catfish, Photo by Jim Franks
Gafftopsail Catfish. Photo by Jim Franks. Click for larger image.

Similar Species

In most regards, the Gafftopsail Catfish, Bagre marinus, resembles a larger version of a Hardhead Catfish with more elaborate fins. The "gafftop" or "sailcat" is readily distinguished from the Hardhead by the long extensions from its dorsal and pectoral fins. The fish's name comes from the resemblance of the fleshy extension of the dorsal to the topsail on a sailing ship.

Gafftopsail Catfish reach a weight of about nine pounds.

Occurrence

Hardhead Catfish are found in the near shore waters and brackish estuaries of the southeast U.S. Atlantic coast and the Gulf coast from Cape Cod to the Yucatan. They prefer sandy or muddy bottoms and tolerate a wide range of salinity from the open ocean to nearly fresh.

Adult Hardhead Catfish prefer temperatures between 77 °F and 97 °F. They are found in coastal Mississippi waters from spring through fall. During winter they move into deeper waters. Some anglers say that the return of Hardhead Catfish to inshore waters is a good indicator that spotted seatrout will soon appear.

Hardhead catfish sometimes school in large numbers at night, particularly around lighted docks.

Life Cycle & Reproduction

Like other members of the Ariidae family, Hardhead Catfish employ an interesting strategy for incubating their eggs and caring for their young offspring. Males brood the fertilized eggs and larval fish inside their mouths, and even shelter small juveniles capable of feeding on their own. For a period of eight to eleven weeks while carrying eggs or young fish, the male parent does not feed. However, the young fish feed on small planktonic crustaceans that drift into the male's mouth.

Hardhead Catfish reach sexual maturity by age two and a length of about 4.9 to 10.4 inches for females and 9.8 inches for males. Sexually mature females develop flap-like fatty tissues in their pelvic fins that cause the fins to be larger than those of the male. It has been suggested that the enlarged pelvic fins serve as a site for fertilization of the eggs during spawning and have a role in moving the fertilized eggs to the male for incubation. It is also possible that the males may pick up the fertilized eggs after they settle to the bottom.

The spawning season extends from May through August or September in shallow estuarine waters. The greenish eggs are oval or elliptical and rather large, 1/2 to 3/4" (12-19 mm) in diameter. Only 20 to 65 eggs are released per spawning event. Mouthbrooding by the male catfish compensates for the small egg production by protecting the eggs during incubation and keeping the eggs well oxygenated by the flow of water though the males mouth as he breathes.

Eggs hatch in about thirty days. The larvae are about 1.1 to 1.8 inches (29 - 45 mm) in length at hatching. The larvae remain in the male's mouth until the yolk sac is absorbed, within two to four weeks. The juvenile fish have then taken on adult characteristics and begin opportunistic feeding and scavenging, but they tend to remain with the male parent and even take shelter in his mouth to avoid threats for some time.

In Mississippi waters, research has shown that juvenile sea catfishes tend to remain in the lower salinity water of bays and estuaries. In Florida, other work has shown that juveniles are more common in deeper waters.

The lifespan may be as long as five to eight years.

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Hardhead Catfish are opportunistic feeders who forage over mud and sand flats for a wide range of food, including live animals and detritus. Their diet includes algae, seagrasses, cnidarians, sea cucumbers, gastropods, polychaetes, shrimps, crabs, and smaller fishes. They are also known to eat blue crabs. Younger fish rely more on crustaceans, and the diet of adults includes more fish.

Hardhead Catfish use the barbels located at the side of their mouths and on their chins to locate crabs

Predators

The primary predators of Hardhead Catfish are large fishes, including gars and sharks.

Fishing for Hardhead Catfish

Hardhead catfish showing barbels and spiny fins.
Use caution when handling Hardhead Catfish. Photo by Don Abrams. Click for larger image.

Although few anglers target Hardhead Catfish, nearly everyone fishing for any inshore species encounters them, especially when fishing with bait on or near the bottom for Red Drum, Spotted Seatrout, and Sand Seatrout. Though often considered a nuisance, hardhead catfish actually out fight seatrout of similar size and they have delighted countless thousands of children learning to fish in saltwater. They're certainly plentiful and probably the most frequently caught fish by recreational anglers. Dr. Tom McIlwain, a pioneering Gulf of Mexico fisheries biologist and former GCRL Director, once remarked that the Hardhead Catfish is the most significant sport fish on the Gulf Coast.

Hardhead Catfish are notorious bait stealers and can occur in such great numbers during warmer weather that it may be difficult to catch other species on piers and beaches.

Hardhead Catfishes are commercially harvested on a limited basis for industrial purposes using bottom trawls. Recreational anglers pursuing cobia and other large fish species often catch Hardhead Catfish for use as a live bait.

Regulations

Mississippi saltwater fishing regulations are available on the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website.

Hardhead Catfish are not regulated in Mississippi or any of the other states on the Gulf of Mexico.

The current Mississippi state records for Hardhead Catfish are 3 pounds, 0.32 ounces for conventional tackle and 1 pound, 10 ounces for fly rod.

Cautions When Handling Catfish

Barbed pectoral spine of a Hardhead Catfish. Photo by Don Abrams.
Barbed pectoral spine of a Hardhead Catfish.
Photo by Don Abrams. Click for larger image or detail.

Use care when handling a Hardhead Catfish. Their strong, stiff dorsal and pectoral spines can inflict a painful puncture wound, made worse by the serrations along the spines and the mucous on the fins, which contains a mild toxin.

Even a dead Hardhead Catfish can present a serious hazard to the person who steps on an erect dorsal or pectoral spine. Tennis shoes and wading shoes are easily punctured, allowing a foot wound. Local legend in southern Alabama maintains that the "Remove dead fish from roadway" signs posted on the first Dauphin Island Bridge are a result of the Governor's limousine being disabled by a flat tire during an official visit to the island in the late 1950s when it ran over a dead Hardhead Catfish discarded on the roadway by a bridge fisherman.

Interesting Aspects of Hardhead Catfish

Hardhead Catfish on the Table?

Hardhead catfish are definitely edible, but they are generally regarded as poor table fare. This is probably due to the difficulty in cleaning them, though they differ little from freshwater catfish in that regard. The similar Gafftopsail Catfish has a somewhat more positive reputation as a food fish, though they certainly outdo the Hardhead in terms of "sliminess." It is likely that most people would not be able to distinguish deep fried saltwater catfish from freshwater catfish, though local water conditions can cause taste differences in both cases. Blind taste tests by the Florida Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Seafood & Aquaculture Marketing showed good acceptance of Hardhead Catfish. The Department's executive chef developed six recipes to showcase the fish, including Florida Pecan Crusted Sea Catfish and Sea Cat Creole.

Conservation Status and Management History

Hardhead Catfish are abundant and widespread. Occasional mass mortalities are observed on the Gulf Coast as a result of disease and low oxygen levels, often associated with algae blooms.

Resources and References

Hardhead Catfish Videos

A Texas angler thinks he's hooked a nice redfish.

Hardhead Catfish. The caption reads, in part, "The Salt-Water Catfish, Drawing by H.I. Todd from No. 21487, U.S. National Museum, collected at Pensacola, Florida, 1878 by Silas Stearns.
Hardhead Catfish. The caption reads, in part, "The Salt-Water Catfish, Drawing by H.I. Todd from No. 21487, U.S. National Museum, collected at Pensacola, Florida, 1878 by Silas Stearns. Source Click for larger image.