To eat, or not to eat mudfish, that is the question! In the annals of unanswered questions like ‘Is drinking coffee good for you?’, there is one that the fishing community has been debating for eons: can you eat mudfish?
Just like the coffee question, there are people on both sides of the divide. While some claim that its flesh is poisonous, others say that the mudfish is perfectly edible. So, which is it?
Unlike the question of coffee, there is actually no ambiguity within the scientific community on the perils of eating mudfish. Citizens of the research arena all agree that mudfish is not poisonous and eating it will bring you no harm.
So, the answer to the age-old question of ‘Can you eat mudfish?’ is a resounding, yes.
Perhaps the more pertinent question should be, ‘Should I eat mudfish?’
Answering that question comprehensively requires an exhaustive look at the humble mudfish itself.
What Is a Mudfish?
If a mudfish from the Mississippi River attended Aquaman’s coronation party, the announcers would introduce it as Amia calva of the Amiidae family. Aside from being impressive scientific jargon, what this means is that mudfish belong to an ancient fish family that dates back to the Jurassic era. In fact, it is the only living representative of its family. They are amphibious in nature and considerably tolerant of adverse conditions. The fact that they can survive both on land and in water has in no small way contributed to its survival, even while the rest of its family members have perished.
Another reason they are so resilient is that they can adapt to temperature variations that would kill other fish. High temperatures mean less dissolved oxygen in water, which can spell death to fish. To a mudfish, this is no problem. They can survive in temperatures ranging from 14 degrees Fahrenheit to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Mudfish Physical Characteristics
It is no surprise that the mudfish fit right into the Jurassic age given its prehistoric physical characteristics. It can be best described as a cross between a fish and an eel; the top half of its body resembling that of a fish which morphs into a scale-less, eel-like exterior in the bottom half. While most mudfish have fish-like eyes, some subspecies like the African Mudskippers have protruding eyeballs that retract into their head, giving them an otherworldly appearance. Their powerful jaws feature sharp scissor-like teeth that allow them to latch onto prey with an unforgiving grip. While this makes them look like they could feature in a horror movie, it has also placed them atop the ‘America’s Toughest Sport Fish’ list.
Most mudfish can grow to 50 centimeters in length. There are, however, a few recorded instances of mudfish growing to over 100 centimeters. Females generally outgrow their male counterparts.
The Mudfish Habitat
As its name suggests, mudfish live in muddy areas like bogs, drainage basins, and wetlands. These habitats, characterized by dense vegetation and still or slow-flowing water, are not ideal conditions for most fish to thrive in. This is because of the low pH levels and below-average oxygen ratio in the water. These harsh aquatic conditions, however, do not faze a mudfish. They, in fact, flourish in such environments. They can also adapt beautifully to changes in their habitat. While some fish adapt to seasonal changes by migrating, mudfish stay put. This holds true even when the water site dries up completely in summer or freezes over in winter. All they require is a wet environment, and they can survive anywhere from a freezing lake to a humid swamp.
The Mudfish Diet
The mudfish diet reflects their habitat. As their typical surroundings are ill-suited for most fish, there is only so much available for them to eat. Also, because of their poor eyesight, they are incapable of catching swift prey. As a result, their diet comprises slow-moving prey, both of the aquatic and terrestrial kind. These include insect larvae, micro-crustaceans like water fleas, freshwater shrimp, snails, and even earthworms. Researchers have even observed some mudfish resting on surface weeds, lying in wait for an unsuspecting beetle to pass by. On the whole, mudfish are not picky eaters. Fish eggs and younger mudfish are not off-limits for an adult mudfish. To avoid being eaten, the younger mudfish usually forage for food during the day to avoid the nocturnally active adult mudfish.
Features Unique To The Mudfish
What makes the mudfish so unique is their ability to survive outside water. The term ‘a fish out of water’ does not apply to them as they are truly bimodal breathers. In simpler terms, that means they can breathe in water and on land. Like all fish, they prefer to live in water and use their gills to breathe underwater, but have the ability to survive outside it too.
When the oxygen saturation in their habitat becomes poor, as is often the case, mudfish swim up to the surface and take in a big gulp of air. They have a swim bladder that holds air bubbles and enables them to breathe surface air. Mudfish adapt to drier summer months by nestling in the wet mud or even in rotting logs. They survive by reducing their metabolic rate and breathing through their skin. They are known to survive for as long as two months doing this.
Mudfish make up for their poor eyesight with their enhanced olfactory system. They have a pervasive system of sensory pores. These along with elongated anterior nostrils allow them to locate prey accurately. Another unique feature is their powerful dorsal fins, which allow them to swim forward or backward. Their eel-like swimming pattern allows them to easily navigate the dense vegetation in their habitat.
Why The Debate?
Mudfish are unique fish species that are true survivors. So why are they at the center of the raging debate that questions if they are edible or not? As previously established, mudfish are edible. Their taste, however, is another matter altogether, and that is perhaps the reason for all the confusion.
Here are some factors you should consider before dining on a mudfish:
Beware of bones:
Mudfish are incredibly bony fish. Not only do they have a central axial skeleton, but they also have many intramuscular bones. What’s more, these intramuscular bones are extremely fine, making them harder to spot.
The saying, ‘you are a product of your environment’ holds true for a mudfish. The murky environment that mudfish usually live in certainly influences their flavor. They have a distinct muddy taste to them, which most people find unpalatable. Another reason for their characteristic taste is the unique way their digestive system handles metabolic waste. Instead of directly excreting nitrogenous waste, the mudfish first converts it to urea. The urea-tinged blood gives the mudfish an unpleasant taste.
Most mudfish species, like the Bowfin, are thriving. Some species, however, are on the endangered list. These endangered mudfish species are mostly native to New Zealand and Australia, like the Canterbury Mudfish. Excessive draining or filling up of swamps for commercial purposes is the reason behind this. Check if there are any endangered species of mudfish in your locality before you go fishing.
If you have taken all the above into consideration and still want to taste a mudfish, then here is a guide to doing just that:
How To Catch Mudfish
Anglers consider mudfish to be a good sport fish because they put up a good fight once trapped. They spin and twist wildly when the anglers try to reel them in, making it a thrilling experience. All this spinning and twisting requires the right bait and gear to successfully catch it. Many an angler has lost his fight with a mudfish because of the wrong gear. Mudfish prefer fresh bait like shrimp or earthworms. A strong and shark hook is necessary to stay pinned into the mudfish’s jaw as it fights against it. An 8-weight rod with a braided line anywhere between 30 to 60 pounds is also essential.
How To Clean And Cook Mudfish
Many people from the fishing community regard the mudfish as ‘trash fish’ with zero table value because of its distinctive muddy taste. If prepared correctly, however, the mudfish makes for a good meal. The first step is to bleed the mudfish by cutting off its head and severing the main artery. Once cut, dunk it in salted water. This draws the urea-filled blood out from its veins and gets rid of the unpleasant taste.
After bleeding out the fish satisfactorily, filet the fish, taking care to remove any pin bones. When filleting a mudfish, avoid the gut area as this is where most of the muddy taste comes from. Prepared in this way, the flavor of the flesh is quite mild and pleasant. The mudfish can be baked, poached, stewed, or breaded and fried to make a tasty meal. Because of its oily and extremely soft flesh, it does not lend itself to grilling or smoking.
So, there you have it, you can catch a mudfish… and eat it too! This survivor of a fish is eminently edible. It just needs a little TLC.