Kambali Catfish

posted: 03/18/14
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Kambali Catfish
Daniel Huertas/DCL |

Clarias gariepinus is another one of those African game fish with a perplexing plethora of names. In English, it's known as the sharptooth catfish, the African catfish and the mudfish, while Africans in different regions call it the kopito, the obito, the nisu, the singri, the ongala and an assortment of other names. Perhaps that's why Swahili speakers simply default to calling it the kambali, which happens to be that language's word for "catfish."

In a sense, that generic label fits pretty well because the hardy air-breathing creature has gradually populated virtually the entire African continent, and into Europe and the Middle East as well. It's nearly as adept of an invader as the giant snakehead, and although it's nowhere near as nasty, it has harmed ecosystems in several countries. Because it's a good-tasting fish, the kambali is widely farmed, and in the wild, it's popular among sport fishermen.

A Bottom and Top Feeder

At up to 3 feet in length and 130 pounds in weight, the kambali isn't the biggest catfish around by any stretch, but it's big enough to look fairly impressive in the obligatory apres-catch snapshot. Some kambalis are dark grayish-greenish black with brightly-colored underbellies. Others have a light upper body with irregular dark splotches. Both varieties have a broadly rounded snout and small eyes, and an elongated body.

The kambali has both gills and an air-breathing organ arising from its gill arches, so it's able to feed on invertebrates and small fish on the bottom during the day, and then crawl up onto the muddy shoreline at night to gobble down young birds, plants and, if it's lucky, a rotting animal carcass. Kambalis mostly are found in quiet lakes and pools, but they're adaptable enough to cope with fast flowing rivers and rapids, as well. They live for an average of eight years, unless someone catches them sooner. The kambali has one strangely goofy characteristic: It's been known to emit loud croaking sounds that sound a bit like a crow.

Catch Them and Eat Them

The kambali is a prime aquaculture fish, because it not only reproduces rapidly, but tastes good both fresh and frozen, no matter whether you broil, fry or bake it. As a sport fish, the kambali has a reputation for putting up a good fight. Once hooked, it will make determined runs into reeds and other snags to seek cover. You can fish for it from banks and rocky outcrops.

Why You Should Throw It Back

Kambali aren't endangered. To the contrary, they've spread far and wide, and proliferate rapidly. If you're a catch-and-release fisherman by nature, though, why change your ways?

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