The Masters of Handgrabbing Catfish
Dr. John Woods 05.06.15
The art of fishing for catfish by grabbing them with your hands is known regionally as handgrabbing, grabbing, or noodling. Whatever you call the sport, it has really been gaining ground the past few years. Now groups of grabbers are forming teams to pull out heavy loads of cats from local rivers or lakes. This is done simply for sport, for the thrill of the experience. It also produces quite a lot of edible catfish for several big fish fry’s.
One such cat grabbing team I befriended several years ago. I’ve known Gerald Moore for a long time. Together we formed the first RMEF Chapter in Mississippi, now long lost in lack of interest. I got to know Gerald even better upon his invitation to join his buddies on a handgrabbing trip. It’s an experience I’ll likely not forget. If you ever get the chance to go along on a catfish handgrabbing venture, then I highly recommend it only if just as an observer. It needs to be on your bucket list for sure.
The “Masters” team consists of Moore, Michael Willoughby, and Stephen Bowden. They have become so good at this unique fishing sport that they have produced an action video and have competed in the Catfish King’s World Series on the Animal Planet television program. They may have caught the single largest catfish ever by the handgrabbing method.
The fishing trip I joined was a thrill from the minute the boats were set into the swift river waters. They kept trying to coax me into the river, but I never gained the moxey to get into river water over my head on the Big Black River west of Canton on the Madison-Yazoo County line.
You certainly need to be a very good swimmer and highly acclimated to standing in soft muddy river bottoms in a swift current. This might sound simple or easy, but it is far from that. If this idea creeps you out, then just stay in the boat with a camera like I did.
Gerald’s team pre-set a number of catfish boxes along the river at specific sites only they knew about. A catfish box is a hand built wooden coffin or crate-like box designed with one open end. After it is sunk into the river mud, catfish rather quickly take up home inside the crate.
When the boats come to the box location spot, the team members jump into the river. They probe around on the bottom with their feet until they hit the box. Quite often the river current moves the boxes around, and often the boxes are lost forever being pushed downstream or under the bottom. When a box is found, a handgrabber goes under to insert his hand and arm into the box to feel for the presence of a catfish.
If a catfish is at home, then it is evident virtually immediately. As the grabber slips his hand into the mouth of the big fish, it clamps down on it at once. When the grabber begins to tug the fish from the box the fish starts banging its tail against the side of the box. From my seat in the boat it sounded like a bass drum being beat hard.
Grabbers often use a nylon fish stringer cord to feed through the cat’s mouth and out the gills to pull the fish out. Others just wrestle the catfish from the inside of the box and up to the surface. Once in a while a fish may get away from the grabber’s grasp, but Moore’s team handgrabbing record is darn respectable.
On the cat grabbing trip I joined just to take photos and to record the event step-by step, Gerald and his team members took in about 15 fish weighing from 15 to 60 pounds each. All common species of catfish where caught including blues, channel cats, and flathead cats. The entire fishing trip took over four hours. We stopped for a shore lunch along the way including several breaks at different points on the river. We must have worked over as many as ten boxes that day.
Other handgrabbers in this sport may take to high potential waters in search for random natural catfish holes. Most rivers in the state will offer a variety of catfish nesting options. These usually include old beaver holes in the river bank, hollow logs submerged in the water, or other river features that catfish love to hide in.
On a recent trip to Lake Washington up in the Mississippi Delta for a crappie fishing trip, we noted several “anglers” wading up in the flooded cypress timbers in depths to their upper chests. They were holding onto the sides of their boats and working the waters for cats to grab. I feel quite certain these guys had handgrabbing boxes set into these spots in the lake to catch the big catfish to grab. So, handgrabbing is not exclusive to rivers or streams but can also be done in lakes as well.
What about the snakes that might be lurking about? If the catfish hole or log is under the water level, then snakes will not be there. But use care around logjams in the river, low overhanging branches, or shoreline bushes. Snakes like those places. We have seen snakes curled up sunning on the tops of stumps and old logs, so use care as you work around these waters.
In Mississippi, handgrabbers have to have a current sport fishing license. Even if you are just watching in the boat, it is still smart that everybody have a proper license. Catfish can only be grabbed by hand. Handgrabbers can use a rope or nylon fish stringer to secure the fish or to help drag it out of the water. However, they cannot use any type of hook, fish holding clamp, or gaffs.
If someone had told me 20 years ago that people would jump out of a boat into a murky, dark, fast moving river to stick their hands up inside a hole or box to drag out a catfish weighing 50 plus pounds, I would have laughed. I don’t laugh any more. Gerald Moore and the Masters of Handgrabbing laugh about it afterwards.