Gone Fishin’ with Earl Lake of Lake's Catfish
Earl Justice Lake III’s family has been working the same plot of land located off Old Highway 61, just south of Tunica, Mississippi, for more than a century. His great-grandfather, J.W. Lake, originally purchased a vast 2,500-plus-acre property in the late 1800s, working the land as one would expect, growing cotton, soybeans, and corn. Since then, the land has been passed down through the family for four generations, up to the present day where the now 585-acre property is maintained by brothers Earl — named for his father, Earl Justice Lake Jr. — and John Lake.
It was Earl Jr. who first installed the catfish ponds in 1969. At the time, the Lakes mainly supplied recreational fishing lakes with stock but also supplied a few restaurants and fish markets in the area.
“My dad saw the potential,” says Earl. “He saw the interest, and the business was growing more and more each year.”
In 1983, Earl and John converted an existing building on-site into a processing plant and founded Lake’s Farm Raised Catfish Inc. Their goal from the get-go was to focus on supplying restaurants and supermarkets.
“In the 1980s, there was a big catfish boom,” says Earl. “I started calling restaurants, markets, and seafood distributors, selling our product. At the time, demand was high. You didn’t see that much ocean fish in the area. Now things are totally different.”
Things went well for the Lakes for several years. At the height of the catfish boom, the farm was producing more than 10,000 pounds of fish per week. But in the late ’90s, things took a turn for the American catfish industry. Fried foods (catfish was primarily a fried item at the time) fell out of fashion, in favor of healthier alternatives. At the same time, grocery stores began expanding their seafood counters to include fish from Asia and South America. Many local fish producers found it hard to stay afloat, but Lake’s Catfish persevered.
“People started becoming more health conscious, and all-you-can-eat fried-catfish buffets weren’t as popular as they once were,” says Earl. “We were lucky to stay in business.”
But in recent years, Lake’s has seen a dramatic uptick in business, thanks to the emerging food movement, which embraces local and sustainable food producers.
“People have started to care again about where their food comes from, and that’s important,” says Earl. “And they deserve to know.”
Earl mans a booth at the Memphis Farmers’ Market downtown every Saturday, selling his catfish direct to customers interested in buying local. He also supplies fish to more than 20 area restaurants and a handful of local markets and grocery stores. The important thing for him is that the quality of the product remains constant — regardless of the venue.
“Whether we’re selling to restaurants or wholesalers or individuals, we strive for quality. I think there’s a place for us at the table,” says Earl. “It’s our quality that keeps us going.”
To ensure said quality, Earl feeds his fish a pellet that is not only high in protein, but also floats. The floating food helps prevent the fish from bottom-feeding — thus yielding a cleaner, sweeter meat.
“Our product is better and safer,” says Earl. “You know what you are getting when you eat our fish. And it tastes better — I’d put our catfish up against anyone else’s.”
But no such test is necessary. Lake’s Catfish is well proven among local chefs and home cooks alike.
“If it weren’t for dedicated local chefs and restaurateurs, we’d be dead in the water,” says Earl. “The support they provide is invaluable. But we also appreciate the walk-up business at the farmers’ market and at the farm itself. Every little bit helps.”
As for the future of the business, Earl hopes for continued growth, but is also aware of the challenges ahead.
“I know that fish from Asia or anywhere else is probably cheaper, and that’s the bottom line for some people. I understand that,” he says. “I’d love to expand our operation, but it’s going to have to make sense economically. People will have to choose to pay a little more for a local, sustainable product.”
Look for Lake’s catfish on the menu at Interim, Felicia Suzanne’s, The Farmer, Amerigo, Belle Diner, Rizzo’s, Terrace at the River Inn, Trolley Stop Market, and other restaurants around town.
Visit Earl Lake at the Memphis Farmers’ Market, Saturdays 7 am – 1 pm through November. Or contact Lake’s Catfish at 662-363-1847.