Harvest Kitchen Series: Cajun-Fried Catfish

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Like most readers, I’m not a master chef — just a guy who loves to hunt, fish, and eat what he harvests. If success afield and family schedule allows, this series will highlight a new game or fish dish each month. I’ll cover all the details from take to table, and everyone will benefit with a collection of easy, everyday meals harvested from nature’s pantry and celebrated in the home kitchen.

The Take

Nothing says summer nights like a boy, a boat and a line in the water.

For some time now, my seven-year-old son, Foster, has proclaimed his desire to catch a big channel catfish, a species we’ve never targeted together. He had heard stories during other fishing excursions about how much fun I had night-fishing for channel cats before he was born.

Enamored by the species and the adventure of “staying up past bedtime,” Foster kept reminding me nearly every time I took him fishing how he wished he could catch a catfish of his own. Figuring he’s finally big enough to make persuading my wife easier, I hatched a plan to hopefully help make his wish come true.

I reached out to my good buddy and fellow outdoor writing colleague Jeff Woleslagle to see if he’d be willing to host us for an evening on the Juniata River where he maintains a newly built cabin, float dock, and jetboat providing easy access to a prime stretch of water.

Jeff is one of the best fishermen I know, but he’s an even better person. Without hesitation, he found time in his busy schedule to put us right on the action, even offering an evening warmup on catch-and-release smallmouth bass before sundown. In about two hours of drifting, we landed 15 bronze-backs using a mixture of topwater lures, jerk baits, Senko rigs and soft plastic jigs. Foster absolutely loved it!

By 8:30 p.m., it was time to switch over to heavier catfish rods, so we made a pitstop at the dock to swap out gear, grab some lights, and prepare for a little fishing in the dark. After finding a promising channel and anchoring the boat, Jeff baited the modified drop shot rigs with cut-bait and night crawlers.

Before all the lines were even in the water, one of the rods began to bounce, and Foster soon reeled in his very first channel catfish, a nice 16-inch eater. He was smiling from ear to ear, but the night wasn’t over yet.

A few minutes later, another rod-tip doubled over, and I quickly secured the hook. Feeling this one was quite a bit heavier than the previous fish, I opted to reel in the stout behemoth while Foster manned the light, and Jeff manned the landing net. It ran and fought tremendously for several minutes, but eventually came to net, measuring 26-inches.

We didn’t have an operational scale onboard but guessed it potentially would’ve qualified as a state angler awards program fish, which requires a minimum length of 24-inches and a weight of 10-lbs, 8 oz. for this species. It was an exciting catch nonetheless, and we released the trophy to be caught again.

Before quitting time, Foster hooked up with one more channel cat, another keeper coming in at 15 inches. He was happy as a boy could be, and so were we. Just before 11 p.m., we thanked Jeff for his generosity and hit the road for our nearly hour-long drive back home with two fresh catfish in the cooler.

The Prep

Pulling in the driveway around midnight, I sent Foster to bed, while I quickly filleted the catfish by headlamp in our backyard, rinsed them thoroughly and refrigerated them overnight in fresh water. The next day, I drained the water from the container and added some cold milk to soak the fillets, drawing out any muddy flavor.

Wanting to take advantage of another summer day outside, and not wishing to overheat my kitchen, I decided I would pan-fry the fillets Cajun-style via cast iron on my outdoor grill.

I whipped together a Ziploc bag full of corn flour, paprika, onion powder, oregano, pepper, thyme, cayenne, and a few liberal shakes of Creole-flavored Can Cooker blend, mixing all the ingredients thoroughly. Then I dropped the milk-dredged fillets into the bag and coated them well.

Meanwhile, the cast iron pan on the grill heated up a warm bath of canola oil. Once the oil passed the readiness test (sizzling when a small splash of water hit it), I carefully set in the fillets, frying both sides for 5-10 minutes until beautifully golden, crispy, and fork flaky.

The Table Takeaway

The catfish was plated with a side of seasoned rice, buttered green beans from the garden, and a dollop of coleslaw. The presentation was a thing of beauty, and it tasted just as good as it looked while washed down with an ice-cold pilsner.

The family verdict went as follows: My wife said it was delicious, with great flavor, and not fishy at all. Foster said it’s his new favorite fish meal, second only to salmon. Our three-year-old daughter said it was “burny hot on my tongue” but still cleaned her plate. We had none left over.

I think it tasted like summer – simple, carefree, and just a touch hot … much like a boy, a boat and a line in the water.

Categories: Cooking, How To’s, Pennsylvania – Tyler Frantz

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