Smoked Catfish

$7.95 Per Pound
Jay International Foods Company
3172 S. Grand Blvd.

Fifty-four point eight-six pounds.

That's the weight of the mud cat 26-year-old Adam Duncan recently landed while angling with a rod and reel in southern Illinois' Baldwin Lake. "It was big," Duncan, who had a friend videotape the tussle, told the Belleville News-Democrat. "[I]t pretty much felt like I was pulling in a Volkswagen."

As an assistant manager at Duncan's Auto and Truck Repair in Belleville, I'm guessing Duncan doesn't choose his automotive similes lightly. This is a man, after all, who is stalking history — or, more precisely, Jody Harris, who on August 11, 1995, pulled a 78-pound flathead from the depths of Carlyle Lake, a state record. "That's what I'm shooting for, is the record," Duncan told the paper. "I just want to be in the record books."

Once a lowly junk fish, thought to be beneath serious anglers' contempt, catfish is the new bass. Not only has the sonar-tracking crowd discovered that with weights of up to 100 pounds, catfish put up a fine fight, but they've also discovered that, bottom-feeder though it is, catfish makes for good eating. Unless, that is, like me you happen to be gnawing on the carcass of a smoked catfish from Jay's International Market.

Gutted, folded into a shape resembling a clef and then smoked whole, it's not so much the taste of this smoked catfish that offends the palate. It's the thing's puck-like durability. This is a foodstuff that rejected the fork I first used to flake its flesh off the bone. Instead of yielding to my tine's gentle prod, the fish rattled about, jumping like a bass on a line, before scurrying away from the plate and onto the floor. It wasn't until I availed myself of a serrated knife (read: bone saw) and placed the mummified mud cat firmly on a cutting board that I succeeded in scraping off a few grains of flesh.

My reward? A grainy, fishy, tooth-crushing substance that I can only hope (like this infernal summer) will pass. But apparently there are other rewards — history, and a shot at landing a monster catfish among them — that are worth braving the heat, at least for the Adam Duncans of the world. "I wouldn't go out in this heat unless I was trying to get that record," Duncan told the paper.

Duncan hoped to mount his prize, but the taxidermist wanted to charge $15 an inch.

In the end, Duncan decided not to mount the fish. Nor, thankfully, did he smoke it. Instead, he put the flathead in the freezer — not so bad a conclusion, if you think about it. At least someone's staying cool this summer.