Handgrabbing Catfish Adds a Whole New Dimension to Fishing
Dr. John Woods 04.02.14
A man’s man would shove his arm into a submerged wooden box, putting his fist right down the throat of a 40-plus pound catfish. Well, I’m not that man. After all, my job was to record the event with the camera and notepad, not to jump into the tannin colored river to retrieve a fish left over from the last ice age.
Handgrabbing catfish has to be an acquired taste, I guess something akin to wrestling alligators or wrangling rattlesnakes. None of those activities are on my bucket list to try. Even so, riding along was indeed a thrill in the same category as deer hunting with dogs or coon hunting in knee deep swamps in the dead of night.
When the call came from Gerald Moore in Madison to join his catfish handgrabbing crew on the Big Black River, it took me a minute to respond. I mean, I have two kids, a wife, and a schnoodle hound to care for at the house. And I can’t get any more life insurance. So naturally I said, ‘Yes.”
Gerald is the real deal. He’s no spring chicken either, but he is just as likely to try anything when it comes to hunting and fishing. He and his cat grabbing buddies have been hiding catfish boxes along the banks of the Big Black River for years. They sink the open ended boxes where the big cats quickly take up residence. The trick is to locate the boxes again, which can be especially difficult after a series of annual spring floods that are apt to move the boxes around, cover them with sand, or wash them miles downstream.
They had a real good idea where each box should be located. Once at a spot, two or three grabbers were over into the river, feeling the bottom with either long poles (or more likely a foot). The water in June was usually up to the neck in places, but sometimes over the head. When a box was found, the designated cat grabber would submerge to check out the box, locate the opening, and see if a fish was indeed in the box.
If a big cat was at home, it did not take long to know. You could actually hear the huge fish banging the box with his tail sitting in the boat. The grabber would take a couple of deep breaths and dive. The idea was to feel around the fish, finding the mouth and gills, and slip a rope line through the gill and out the mouth. Next it was getting a good hold on the line and fish.
Once the catfish hits the plane of the river surface, all heck breaks loose. If the handgrabber does not have a solid grip on the rope, the fish can easily break away. It’s good idea to have a back up man nearby; he can help wrestle the fish over to the boat to get it up and over the side and into a cooler if the fish is not too big. A lot of them were.
Having five guys along to share the work proved not only more fun, but a smart tactical approach. Every trip is a memory in the making for these guys to share for years to come. You can well imagine the jabbing and joking between a bunch of friends up to their necks in dingy river water, all of them willing to stick their hands in the mouth of a 40-60 pound fish clamping its jaws on their fingers. That’s handgrabbing in a nutshell.
Handgrabbing for catfish is a unique sport that is not to be approached lightly or unprepared. Gerald and his crew have gotten so good at it that they have actually recorded a video for sale. I have not noted any of them having yet moved to Hollywood. It’s not for the masses or the faint of heart, but the guys that do it sure have earned my respect, “earned” being the operative term when it comes to the sport of handgrabbing.