“The Gaff-Top Men”

Leroy hooking up with a Toe to Toe battle with a stingray

By Ed Snyder/Outdoors
Bolivar Peninsula, TX.
“If we told you we’d have to shoot you, was the grinning reply to my curiosity, right then my attitude quickly changed from curiosity to hilarity, merging with the bending poles and splashing guffaws of the “Gaff-Top Men!”

Rollover Pass was in total brown-out with my fishing story in danger of becoming just a blank sheet of type! So, with a missed deadline dawning into a repeat of yesterday’s yawn I decided to check the nearby intra-coastal waterway to see if the fishing action was any better…..BINGO!

A.J. “Woah-Whoah” Martin and John “Leroy” Bailey were there having the time of their lives fishing for, and catching Gaff-Top (Sail) Catfish in the waters of the Intra-coastal, which feeds the tidal basin for Rollover Bay, and in doing so, they managed to clear my writers block by uncovering a story which was begging to be told.

Hardhead Catfish, the scourge of saltwater bait anglers, are, for the most part, scavenger fish will bite anything and everything that is chunked in front of them. Hardheads have dorsal and pectoral fins with sharp, slime-covered barbed spines which can penetrate a shoe, hand, or even flatten a vehicles tire when left on the bank by disgruntled anglers.

The pain of having a hardhead barb penetrate your hand, finger, or body can be extremely excruciating, and in some cases will require medical treatment. I’ve seen grown men faint when stuck and I’ve actually suffered a hardhead barb breaking off in my thumb where it had to be cut out. The pain was excruciating!

Saltwater Gaff-Top are a favorite catch for those who relish them

On the other hand, the other saltwater catfish, the Gaff-Top, or Sail-Cat, are, however, extremely tasty and much sought after by anglers who enjoy catching them. But these saltwater catfish also have extremely sharp fins with toxic barbs and must also be handled carefully. The gaff-top also exudes a protective slime when caught that can be offensive to some and hard to handle by anglers.

Another name for the gaff-top is the “Crucifix Catfish“. The reason for this can be seen when the catfish carcass is boiled clean of all flesh leaving a skeletal replica of Christ on the Cross. Gaff-Top will also hit artificial baits and give excellent credence to their fighting abilities.

“One thing we’ll do when a puncture accident occurs, stated Bailey, is to rub some of the slime from the catfish on the wound where it will then soothe the pain. You can also do this with hardhead spine punctures as well, A.J. added as he flung another cast out into the gaff-top hole. We use fishing towels when landing them and don’t have any problems with the slime when handling them as long as we’re careful.”

“Gaff-Top catfish get their name from their dorsal fins that rise from their backs like a streaming sail, A.J. informed, along with their pectoral fins that have sail-like streamers coming off their tips. They also have fishlike mouths and grow much larger than the hardhead. Texas regulations require 14 inches minimum with no creel limits and the state record Gaff-Top is presently set at 13.33 lbs.

“We started fishing together as a team about 4 years ago, stated A.J., a retired truck driver, and we developed our own system of catching these fish, added small engine repairman, John Bailey.

Whoah Whoah with a nice Gaff-Top for supper

Asking as to what they do with gaff-top catfish, both grinned like sheep eating grass through barbwire, answering, well, we EAT THEM DUMBY! And with that comical retort echoing in my notebook, A.J. suddenly answered my next query about his nick name with a rod bending bite of a large fish. The action was robust with the “keystone komedy” antics of A.J. when running amuck yelling “Whoah-Whoah” while trying to land the hard fighting fish along the rocks finally landing a whiskered critter that looked like no catfish I‘ve ever seen before.

With the gaff-top finally iced down with several others in the cooler, A.J. opted to switch from cut eel to squid, two favorite foods for these catfish that has been successful for catching them. “I’m going to try for stingray now, he answered my questioning look, further stating that he heard stingray were good eating and I want to try one for supper.

(Writers note) I’ve often heard stingray were good to eat but due to a personal stigma about them I’ve always turned down any options of cleaning them for the supper table, ESPECIALLY after being jabbed in the ankle by one while wade-fishing.

Stingray on the menu

My memory of that painful stingray incident kept me from accepting his invitation. But, images of golden fried gaff-top with scallops of stingray finally turned my negative to a positive, more so out of curiosity rather than from actual hunger.

“This area always has much clearer water than Rollover Pass, stated John, and the holes we are fishing are about 15 to 20ft deep. The incoming tide provides the slowest bite with the outgoing tide being the best. We usually fish with shrimp at first to catch eels, where we’ll then cut the eel up in one inch chunks for bait. Both eel and squid are best baits for the gaff-tops, but squid will always attract stingray bites. The gaff-top are here from May through September and provide some excellent fishing action.

With this information freshly exposed to my notes, “Whoah-Whoah’s rod suddenly bows to the bank with John leaping to grab the rod first. A ’toe-to-toe’ battle of stingray -vs- angler ensued with straining muscle and a BIG FISH rod finally over powering the ray where he finally wrestled a large winged critter to the bank. Our culinary experiment of scalloped stingray being either cuisine or crab-bait was now resting on ice for the chef.

“I make my own terminal tackle for this type of fishing, explained John, as he displayed a multi-colored beaded rig. The beads attract the fish with its reflective colors and clicking sounds and we use a flat 3oz sinker to avoid rolling with the tidal currents or river barge wakes of the boats that use the intra-coastal waterway. We see ’tons’ of boat traffic navigating these waters from just about every state and country from freight barge traffic, to shrimp boats, to passing yachts and fishing boats of all sizes, they informed, so even when the fishing bite slows we’re still entertained by the passing boat traffic.”

My day with the Gaff-Top Men finalized with a heaping plate of golden fried gaff-top, filets, which I found to be very tasty, along with fried chunks of scalloped stingray which had a surprisingly delicate sweet, flavor that reminded me of sea scallops. Our chef, A.J. Martin, used his special “Whoah-Whoah” Cajun seasoning that added tasteful spices to our feast that included fried taters and chilled slices of cucumber and tomatoes.

Gaff-Top catfish and Stingray have definitely found a place on my menu of seafood cuisine ESPECIALLY after being plated with Whoah-Whoah’s Special Cajun seasoning of herbs and spices.

Scallops of Stingray & filets of Gaff-Top plated with country fries and chilled salad

Hopefully, A.J. will heed my advice and start marketing his special fish fry seasoning to the public. Both anglers are Louisiana transplants who reside in Houston now.

(Writers Note; The recommended way to clean gaff-top is to filet them with a sharp filet knife, but don’t throw away the ribcage as it too can be seasoned and deep fried with an exceptional flavor. Stingray requires more care. Using a small 1-inch cookie cutter, cut through the wings for small circles of meat. Then filet off the skin before rolling in a seasoned Tempura flour mix before deep-frying. As soon as the stingray chunks rise to the surface they’re done. Enjoy with your favorite chilled brew!

For updated fishing info on what’s happening at Rollover Pass contact “Miss Nancy’s Bait Camp” at (484)-560-9323 or on “Face Book“ under Miss Nancy‘s Bait Camp.

This Ed Snyder/Outdoors report sponsored by Fishing World.com, Miss Nancy’s Bait Camp, Crystalbeachlocalnews.com, Bolivar Peninsula Chamber of Commerce.

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One Response to ““The Gaff-Top Men””

  1. Rebecca Allison says:

    I would like to know if someone in the area there sells the Gaftop? I really want to have some for my fish fry and can’t get down there to do any fishing til the end of the month

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