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WOODS: Time to put gloves on for handgrabbing

If you like to get bitten by the mouth that feeds you, it may be time to take up the sport of catfish handgrabbing. The season officially opened on May 1st and runs through the 15th of July. That is more than enough time to get up the nerve to stick your hand into the mouth of a giant river or reservoir catfish to wrestle it to the surface. Better have some good gripper gloves though or that rough textured catfish mouth can take the skin off your handgrabbing hand.

Call it handgrabbing, grabbing or noodling, the ever-more popular fishing sport has really been gaining ground the past few years. Now even teams of grabbers are forming to grasp heavy loads of catfish from local rivers simply for the thrill of the experience, but also obviously to yield considerable catfish meat for some big fish fries.

Teams are also forming to enter competitive grabbing events. This is big time stuff.

Moore and Masters of Handgrabbing

I’ve known Gerald Moore of Madison for a long time. But you never really get to know a guy until you’ve gone handgrabbing with them. It’s an experience like none other. His “Masters” team consists of himself, Michael Willoughby and Stephen Bowden. They have gotten so good at this sport that they have produced their action video, and have appeared as contestants in the “Catfish King’s World Series” on the Animal Planet television program. Like I said, this is big time stuff.

Gerald Moore with a catfish he handgrabbed.

Gerald Moore with a catfish he handgrabbed.

“I thought my bud, John, would enjoy tagging along on a handgrabbing trip, but we never could coax him into the river,” says Moore. He was right about that. It was a thrill from the get go, but I never mustered enough bravery to climb out of the boat into the swift moving Big Black River west of Canton on the Madison-Yazoo county line.

I’d easily be the first to admit that this sport not only takes some natural talent, swimming skills and experience that can only be learned first-handed as it were, but it takes a huge dose of “man-up,” as well. Kind of like taking that first jump off a bridge tied to a bungee cord. I don’t want to do that, either. Interestingly enough, the sport has also attracted a number of female grabbers, too. Ya gotta love the South.

The Moore team had pre-set a number of catfish boxes along the river at designated places known only to them. A catfish box is a sort of wooden coffin or crate shaped box fashioned with just one end open. Once submerged in the river mud, the catfish quickly take up residence inside the box.

When the boats approach the spot where a box has been sunken, the team members jump into the water. They use their feet or poles to poke around until they find the box, as it could have moved due to the swift current of the river. Sometimes the boxes are lost altogether. Once the box is located, a diver goes under putting his hand and arm up into the box to see if a catfish is home.

If there is one in the box, then you know it immediately, even sitting up in the boat. As the “catgrabber” slowly slips his hand into the mouth of the catfish, the fish clamps down automatically. When the grabber starts to pull the huge cat out of the box the fish starts banging his tail against the sides of the wooden crate I assume in protest. It sounds like a bass drum being beat and was easily audible from my seat in the boat.

The diver may try to slip a nylon cord fish stringer through the cat’s mouth and out the gills, but others just arm wrestle the big fish out of the box and to the surface. Sometimes this may take several tries especially if the fish is not oriented in the box with its mouth facing the opening. Then it has to be turned around inside the box. Occasionally a fish will escape during the process, but Gerald’s team catching record is pretty darn good. They don’t lose many.

On the trip I participated in as the observer-photographer, Gerald and his team grabbed about 15 catfish in weights from 15 to 60 pounds. Several species of cats where caught including blues, channel cats and flathead catfish. The whole trip took about three-four hours with several breaks along the river. It is a tiring sport to say the least.

Other Approaches

Some handgrabbers just take to the river searching for natural catfish hiding places. Most rivers will offer a variety of possible catfish nesting options. These can include old beaver holes in the river bank, hollow logs submerged in the water, or other river structures.

Everybody always asks, “What about the snakes”? Turns out, if and that is a big and must be confirmed IF, the box, hollow tree or hole is completely under the water a snake will not get into these submerged places. That is a good thing.

Handgrabbing requires a valid sport fishing license by each person directly participating in the actual grabbing. Also, the fish can only be grabbed by hand or with the aid of a rope or fish stringer as mentioned. Grabbers cannot use hooks, mechanical clamps, grips or gaffs.

Who would have ever thought that the idea of putting your hand into the mouth of a mammoth catfish and hoisting them out of the depths of a river or lake would become a sport? Truth is folks that really enjoy outdoor recreation will think of nearly anything being outside soaking up all that nature has to offer. So, how does that grab you?

John J. Woods, Ph.D., is vice president in charge of economic development and training, Eagle Ridge Conference and Training Center, the Workforce Development Center and contract training services at Hinds Community College in Raymond.

About John Woods

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