Secrets of Catfish Success
By Jackie Sheckler Finch | Photography courtesy of Pride of the Pond
Pride of the Pond is small, but they are mighty when it comes to producing sweet, flavorful catfish.
When Bill Battle cooks catfish for his family, he knows the fish will be delicious. How can he be so sure? He raised the catfish himself in his third-generation, family-owned catfish farm Pride of the Pond.
“Our goal has never been to be the biggest catfish company in the industry and we aren’t. Our company is one of the smallest,” Battle says. “Our goal has been to have the best-tasting catfish available and that’s what we do. That is our claim to fame.”
Founded by Battle’s father, Paul Battle Jr., the family’s fish farm is a dual operation. “We both raise catfish and we process catfish,” Battle explains. The Battle fish farm started in 1969; Pride of the Pond began in 1982.
Working in the family’s company since he was a teenager, Battle now has three of his and wife Lynda’s children working with him – his daughter, Betsy, and his two sons, Cooper and Houston.
Located in Tunica, Pride of the Pond covers about 1,000 acres and employees about 125 workers at the plant and pond.
“Tunica is a good place for this because our water table here is shallow,” Battle says. “You can get fresh water by drilling down about 100 feet. The heavy clay soil here holds water like a bowl. It doesn’t leak and doesn’t erode.”
Since catfish are bottom feeders, the ones that are farm raised taste better and are better for you, Battle says. “Natural catfish are scavengers. They eat whatever they can find. Our farm-raised catfish are fed with floating pellets that are all vegetable-based.”
Catfish pick up a flavor of whatever water they call home. “If the water is stagnant or river water, catfish might have a bad taste,” Battle says.
Pride of the Pond catfish are known for their consistent good taste, Battle says, because he and his crew work hard to maintain that good taste. When catfish fingerlings are about 4-to-6 inches long, they are placed in manmade ponds filled with fresh water pumped from underground wells.
“We feed our catfish every day except for three months in the winter – November, December and January – when sales kind of drop off because that is ham-and-turkey season for the holidays, and the fish sort of hibernate because of the colder weather. They wouldn’t eat even if we fed them,” Battle says.
Catfish feed is mainly soybean meal with some corn and rice ingredients as well as being hormone and antibiotic-free under USDA supervision. Because Pride of the Pond catfish are fed a scientifically formulated diet of high-protein pellets that float on top of the water, the fish have a consistently mild, slightly sweet flavor. It takes about 18 months to two years to grow a one-pound fish.
Before harvesting, every catfish pond is sampled for good-tasting fish. The product’s biggest challenge is being off flavor.
“That’s when the fish picks up an unpleasant flavor from algae while the fish is growing,” Battle says. “We manage our ponds continually to prevent this. Being on flavor is everything to us because we want our customers to be happy with what they eat.”
Catfish are harvested using 1 5/8-inch seine nets. Crews use two tractors to pull a net across the length of a pond. Then a mechanic arm scoops the live catfish into a tanker truck. The catfish are then hauled to the processing plant and emptied into a chilled holding tank where the fish are sorted for size and filleted. The fillets are individually frozen in 20 minutes.
The fish are tested in several other steps along the way. Samples are tested off the truck when it gets to the processing plant and again when the fish get to the freezer.
“We cook the fish and have a taste test lady who is a super-sensitive taster,” Battle says, adding that Pride of the Pond processes about 35,000-to-55,000 pounds of catfish each day.
“We also keep a history on how each pond tastes,” he adds. “We pay attention to detail to make sure that every pond is on flavor. We guarantee our product to have good flavor and we take extra steps to be sure of that. We never want our customers to be disappointed.”
The COVID-19 shutdown was particularly hard on his business, Battle says. “About 70 percent of our catfish go to food service, and probably 1,200 restaurants in the mid-South were shut down. Our sales have gone down as much as 60 percent.”
Part of the problem, Battle says, is that “a lot of the restaurants we serve are mom-and-pop restaurants with an older clientele and older owners. Those are high risk people and we worry about how many are going to reopen and how many will have the same number of customers.”
Pride of the Pond has been riding out the pandemic storm, and Battle believes that “eventually it will straighten out and things will go back to some kind of normal. People love their catfish and I think they will always want to eat it.”
As for him, although he is happy to share recipes, Battle says his favorite is fried catfish.
“I’m an old country boy and like mine fried,” he says. “There aren’t many things that taste as good as catfish and are as good for you.”