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When the bass are too lazy to bite, the trout too lazy to rise, and the locals won't tell you the location of the walleye hole, you can be sure the catfish will still welcome your bait.

The catfish can be found from New Orleans to northern Canada, from panfish size to lunker. Catching, cleaning, and cooking is almost as easy as baiting a hook. Here's how.

Catching

Catfish don't school so much as just hang out in the same neighborhood. Silty bottoms and murky waters don't bother them, but they don't favor fast water or rocky bottoms. Look for them in shadowy, slow eddies and often in weeds.

Catfish will eat just about anything. Worms and minnows work as bait. So do small crappies or perch. In jurisdictions where live bait is illegal, try raw bacon rind or fatback. A ball of bread dough also has appeal.

If the water is extremely murky or it's a very dark day, light-colored bait and some lazy jigging should catch the fish's attention. The big channel cats, sometimes running down south to 40-50 pounds, like deep water, but the panfish size, a pound and up, seem to prefer four to eight foot depths.

Use light line and you'll get a fight because catfish are stubborn; they tend to pull rather than thrash. Slow and steady wins the day.

Cleaning

No question, catfish are plain ugly. Because the bones strip so easily when cooked, you usually only need to fillet the big ones. A good knife and a pair of pliers are all you require for cleaning them.

First, clip the barbs; they can give you a nasty gouge. The whiskers are harmless. Off with the head to the back of the spine; then, because the fish has no scales, peel it with the pliers, trimming off fins as you go. The catfish cleans almost as easily as a rabbit.

Cooking

Cooking catfish is fast or fancy.

Pan fried is fast, about 15-20 minutes. Start with butter sizzling in a hot skillet. Mix together some dry flour, salt, and pepper; coat the fish and put it in the pan. You may want to fry the catfish with peel chunks from half a lemon or lime to add more flavor. Fry the catfish a little longer than you would a similar size whole rainbow trout because the flesh is denser.

Baked takes longer, of course, but if you have an eight to ten pounder and half a dozen starving fishermen to feed, this may be the way to go.

A whole fish this size can be stuffed before baking. here's a tasty stuffing:

3 cups pre-cooked rice
1 medium onion, diced and sauteed to translucence in butter
2 celery stalks, diced small and sauteed with the onions
1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
1/4 cup diced black olives
celery salt and pepper

After stuffing the fish and basting it with 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and the butter from your sauteeing pan, wrap and seal it loosely in tin foil. If you have some fresh chives or shallots, a sprinkling is very attractive and can be applied just before serving if chopped finely.

Place the wrapped fish on a cookie sheet or shallow baking dish. Bake at 325 degrees for ninety minutes; loosen the seal and bake for another thirty minutes. You may wish to bake it longer, depending on how you like your fish, but with the seal loosened, it's very easy to watch progress.