July 29, 2009 4:44:00 PM
Steve Mullen - [email protected]
My uncle has a lake on his land near Canton, stocked with bass and bluegill; he loves to fish, and my kids, in turn, are learning to love it too.
It''s stocked pretty well, and to cast a line means to come up with a fish, more often than not, it seems.
The surprise of that is beginning to wear off. But we were all surprised -- and puzzled -- a few weekends ago when the 9-year-old managed to catch not one, but two, catfish. Not bass or bluegill, but catfish. This is a man-made lake, and isn''t supposed to have catfish. And a little girl pulled out two in a matter of minutes.
"I wonder who put them in there," I said rhetorically, looking at the two catfish on the bank. These were pretty good-sized eaters.
"God," my uncle said, accepting that what happens, happens.
It made me think of what scientists now say about the possibility of life on other planets -- if the conditions are anywhere near right, life will find a way to latch on. In Mississippi, catfish prove this point. If there is a body of water able to hold them, they magically appear.
And they thrive here, to legendary size. This is a state, after all, where grown men strap on scuba gear and go "grappling" in the Ross Barnett Reservoir -- catching catfish upwards of 50 pounds with an extended arm holding bait. (I can think of few things more heart-attack inducing than a monster catfish suddenly appearing from the murky brown water, clamping onto your arm up to the elbow.)
The state record catfish, incidentally, was caught in the Mississippi River in Adams County earlier this year, weighing in at 95 pounds. That fish was caught by a 10-year-old boy; it makes what my daughter did a couple weeks ago, however miraculous, pale in comparison.
We have these catfish
We have these catfish in order to eat them; if you''re from somewhere else, it doesn''t take long for that to become apparent. Every restaurant in north Mississippi has some type of catfish on the menu, and you can spend just about as much or as little as you want on it.
Our high-end places get fancy with it. Anthony''s in West Point does a catfish with crawfish sauce that will knock you out. Here in Columbus, Broussard''s touts its pecan pane catfish, but I much prefer their catfish with shrimp and mushrooms.
This week I got wind that The Veranda in Starkville had a mean catfish dish. In the spirit of journalistic research, and already committed to writing this column, Lee and I braved last night''s crushing rain, driving over swollen rivers and creeks no doubt teeming with catfish, to go there. (A few could have taken up residence in the typically dry ditches along Highway 82.)
It was good. Blackened, with crawfish sauce, and served with veggies, fried green tomatoes and a big dollop of mashed sweet potatoes just like you''d have on Thanksgiving.
Of course, in Mississippi, when you serve Mississippi catfish you say so. Starting last year, the Legislature mandated restaurants tell their customers the country of origin of their catfish, evidenced by the placards found in the front of most places.
Times have been better
It''s no secret or surprise that Mississippi is the nation''s largest producer of catfish, but times have been better for catfish farmers. Many will tell you there just isn''t money in it anymore, between feed and energy costs and competition from foreign countries, which export millions of pounds of catfish into the U.S. each year.
Nationwide, catfish production fell 13.5 percent in the first five months of this year compared to 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Farmers will tell you they''ve been losing ground for more than a decade.
But catfish farmers are holding out hope that the Obama administration imposes stricter inspection standards on imported catfish -- standards that would, in effect, end most imports from overseas, specifically from Vietnam.
The plan, endorsed by Congress, would subject imports to USDA inspections, instead of looser FDA oversight.
"Aquaculture is agriculture, plain and simple; our catfish are grown by farmers, not fisherman," Roger Barlow, president of catfish farmers'' advocacy group The Catfish Institute, said in a recent news release. "Because of this, it simply makes sense that our industry be regulated by the appropriate administration."
The Catfish Institute touts safety for consumers in its push for the new rules, raising the spectre that "only a fraction" of imported fish "is tested for contamination with illegal drugs and chemicals." The fact is, the rules would drastically limit imported catfish, giving domestic farmers more of the market.
The rub is, while Vietnam is sending fish over here, cattle farmers are sending beef over there, and lots of it. The fear is if we put new rules on their fish, they will do so with our beef.
That''s why the Wall Street Journal came out against the new rules in a recent editorial. "This is an attempt at protectionism-by-regulation from domestic catfish producers and their pals in Congress," the Journal said. "Interfering with the free trade in one good can have unintended consequences that can hurt the protectionist as much as the exporter."
It depends on where you''re sitting, I suppose. If you''re surrounded by catfish ponds, new regulations make sense. But if you''re sitting in a pasture in Montana, they''re deadly.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.