Blood trickled from his wrist as he held out his limb to examine the damage. The Eurasian milfoil still bobbed up and down from where my brother, Matt, broke the surface after a failed attempt at hauling in the underwater quarry. Moments earlier, I'd listened from above the surface of the water as a 35-pound flathead catfish clamped its fleshy jaws on Matt's wrist as he swept it about in the dark hole. Matt had been wearing a light Jersey glove, but it wasn't much aid. The flathead yanked it away in one quick pull.
Two reaches and two smashing bites later, Matt expressed more than a little frustration. "Can't get a hold of the sucker," he said.
I gave it a go, being the "experienced" older sibling. The flathead obliged, grabbing my hand with impunity, but I gave him a surprise. When he pulled back into his lair, I held onto his jaw.
"Got him - help!" I sputtered, arm shoulder-deep in the hole but scarcely more than my mouth and nose at the surface. Like a good brother should, Matt joined the scrap, grabbing the flathead's jaw along with me. My wife, Michelle, sat on the bank with camera in hand.
On a count of three, Matt and I slogged through the milfoil and both slipped to our knees on the muddy bank. The flathead flopped and rolled between us, nearly making it back to the water before we shoved it onto dryer ground. Covered in mud, blood, slime and huge grins, we hollered like heathens. "How," Matt asked as we posed briefly for photos before easing the big flattie back into the water to fight another day, "could any woman not enjoy this?" Indeed.
Otherwise sane men do all sorts of foolish things to prove their manliness, sometimes to the opposite sex, but often just to grunt with glee in front of one another. Some get tattoos. Some ride bulls. Some strap on parachutes and jump out of flying things. We simply catch catfish - no hooks allowed. When the time is right, we jump in the water, reach into the most forlorn of holes and wrestle slimy, beady-eyed, sandpaper-mouthed catfish to the surface. Flatheads in the 25-pound range are about average, though we've caught 50s. Ill-tempered blues and meaty-headed channel cats occupy the other holes.
A New Addiction
I wasn't always addicted to the sport, though. At one time, I thought the mere idea of catfish grabbing (due to regional sensitivity, it's mandatory here to mention its other names, so here goes: noodling, grabbling, grappling, tickling, hogging, stumping, graveling and simply handfishing) was a bizarre notion best left to the reddest of rednecks. Then, I realized one day that, despite a moderately privileged upbringing and numerous college English courses, I was, myself, a redneck. So, after my friend, Wade Bourne, who'd done a fair bit of noodling on his former television show, "Southern Outdoors" shared one of his contacts with me, I arranged a writing and photography trip with the late Bob Henderson on the Yazoo River in Greenwood, Miss. Henderson was a no-nonsense, to-the-point kind of guy who was legendary in his catfish-grabbing exploits, having pulled such feats as landing cats in the 90-pound range and pulling up two 40-pounders in one dive. A day in the boat with his marine drill-instructor-type coaching led to me grabbing my first flathead by the end of the day. It was one of those rare events (this one more describable on a family website than others) that literally changed my outlook in life. That's been just two summers ago - but I've been hooked ever since.
More Hands in the Water
I've noticed, particularly in the past couple years, that noodling has achieved somewhat of a "mainstream uniqueness," if such a thing isn't an oxymoron. Marty Jenkins and his bunch, who handfish waters in the Tennessee River chain in the eastern portion of Tennessee, for example, have successfully marketed a couple videos, including the most popular, "Girls Gone Grabblin.'" Just the other day, we had a local outdoor show, "Hunting Home," spend the day noodling with us on Kentucky Lake with cameras rolling. When I tell folks about my catfishing passion, they usually know what it is, even if they think it's downright insane.
Plainly speaking, grabbing catfish isn't that hard. I'm a skinny guy myself, having never been blessed with much in the way of muscularity, and I go every chance I get. Plenty of little ladies, as evidenced by the two blue cats my wife caught not long ago and the numerous subjects on "Girls Gone Grabblin,'" participate in the sport as well. There really are only a few things you need to remember for success.
Catfish spawn in cavities in late spring and early summer. After females lay the eggs, males guard them and the fry that hatch from them for a couple weeks. Many things create suitable sites. Hollow logs, muskrat holes, abandoned concrete slabs and sunken boxes and barrels (where legal) create excellent by-the-hour motels.
The best holes, at least in my experience, are in areas with a hard bottom. We've found pea gravel to be the best on Kentucky Lake, but a sandy bottom runs a close second. Holes near creek channels usually hold larger fish, and obviously, the bigger the hole, the more promise it has for a larger fish.
Those boys down in Mississippi had a saying when it came to the actual grabbing portion: "You better have your mind right." Truer words have never been spoken. When we're grabbing fish in large, natural holes, the best chance for success is in the first reach or two into the hole. This is when you'll catch the fish off guard, and he'll usually bite your hand. Fish that will bite are always easier to catch than those that won't, provided your mind "stays right." It's a little difficult to make yourself reach forward and grab, rather than yank away when a fish clamps down (even though it's akin to touching a hot stove). But when you're able to defeat your own instincts is when you become decent at the sport. It took me a while to learn to reach into a hole palm-down, for example, so that I could better grab a flathead's clasping jaw. Those fish that refuse to bite, particularly in the largest holes, are tricky. We carry an array of "poking sticks" to corral shy cats to within grabbing distance at the front of the hole. We've had plenty of fish slip by us or simply refuse to move after more than an hour of coaxing, but that's part of the game. Overall, it's somewhat refreshing to see the sport of catfish noodling become more mainstream. This year, Kansas legalized it for flatheads, becoming part of the growing fraction of states allowing the practice.
Indeed, the sport is opposed by many. But it seems that those who don't understand it and are afraid of it are most vehemently opposed. It is an extremely effective way to catch large flathead catfish, and it does revolve around the spawning period. But a catfish killed by a noodler is no more dead than one killed by a trotliner or rod-and-reel angler. Many noodlers, myself included, release the larger fish anyway (though flatheads are excellent eating - even the big ones). We take what we need for a good fish fry or two and nothing else.
Noodlers are a quiet, secretive bunch, even amongst themselves. But catch one out probing some rocky bank and ask him what he's doing, and he'll likely be friendly and tell you - maybe even invite you in for a try. If he does, surprise him and take him up on the offer. You may find yourself a convert, just like I did.