Handful of Fun

Need an adrenaline charge? Here’s what you need to know to do hand-to-hand combat with the biggest fish in our fresh waters.

Rob Heflin
May 20, 2008 at 1:01 pm  | Mobile Reader | Pring this storyPrint 

Jessie Watts caught this huge flathead in Northeast Mississippi, and then released it into the pond in the background.
Photo courtesy JESSIE WATTS
Jessie Watts caught this huge flathead in Northeast Mississippi, and then released it into the pond in the background.
May 1 signaled the start of one of the most peculiar periods in Mississippi — catfish-grabbling season.

Coinciding with the spawning period of catfish in state waters, grabbling (or hand grabbing) season runs through July 15. Just like any other nesting fish species, catfish are very territorial when it comes to defending their young.

While it is relatively easy to dangle something in front of a crappie spawning in sparse cover in 2 feet of water, it’s quite difficult to get a hook in front of a catfish spawning deep inside a hollow log or 3 feet back in an abandoned beaver bank den.

Anglers know that some of the best times to catch cats are just before and after the spawn, but dangling baits into the muddy waters does little good when the fish are on the nest not actively prowling for food.

The male prepares the nest, and the female runs in to spawn. The male then stands guard over the eggs and fans them with his tail until they hatch. Anything that comes close to those eggs will be swallowed quicker than Jonah on the way to Tarshish.

This is where the insanity of grabbling comes into play. Abandon the rod and reel and the trot line — you’ve got to go to the fish when they are on the nest. The trick is to block all escape routes and reach into the box with your hand. Feel around and find the fish’s mouth (if it didn’t find you first), run your fingers in there and get him to the boat before you drown. It’s simple in thought, anyway.

Blue and yellow cats are the prized treasures of the catfish-grabbling community, and the bigger the better. Grabblers say the flatheads will hurt you; blues will do their best to kill you.

Both species have sandpaper-like tooth pads on their upper and lower lips — very effective for holding and stripping soft, fleshy things. Blues even have the nasty habit of rolling after they bite, so you can liken the experience to sticking your hand and arm between two working belt sanders in a cage under water.

Even if you decide to let go, the fish might not, and only one of you is holding his breath. The other has gills. Then figure on other beasts besides cats possibly being on the other end of your arm, like beavers, snappers and snakes, and the adrenaline level goes off the scale when you dive in the murky waters and start feeling around unknown caverns. Chances are you’ll go home limpin’.

When to fish

Water temperatures in the 70- to 80-degree range in mid-May to mid-June will signal the start of the spawn for both blues and flatheads, but depending on water temperature, one water body could start sooner than another. The spawn for each species can last a month, and males will guard the nests for a couple of weeks until the eggs hatch and the fry leave.

The fish spawn may have come and gone on Enid Reservoir before it ever begins on the Coldwater River, and the spawn on Eagle Lake may be several weeks ahead of Tunica Cutoff. Oxbows that are connected to the Mississippi, like DeSoto, Ferguson and Tunica, probably won’t reach spawning temperature as soon as landlocked oxbows, like Moon Lake and Lake Washington.

Even if you have the perfect temperature, high water levels after big rains can make it impossible for you to get to the boxes when the fish are in them. So like any other type of hunting or fishing, grabbling cats is an unpredictable sport.

Where to fish

The Yazoo River drainage system, including the Coldwater, Tallahatchie, Yalobusha, Yocona and Yazoo rivers, is prime grabbling habitat. So are the dozens of oxbows still connected to the Mississippi River and the hundreds of others that are not.

The Delta has no monopoly on big cats. The Pearl and Big Black rivers and Ross Barnett, Arkabutla, Sardis, Enid and Grenada reservoirs are also great catfish waters. Once you narrow down which rivers or lakes you want to try, finding the sweet spots beneath the surface may take a little more time.

If you’ve got a chance to scout when the water is low, you can find all sorts of places to grabble later. Inactive beaver bank dens, washed out tree roots, hollow logs, holes under boat ramps, rocks and log jams are great natural nesting sites. If you can’t find enough natural habitat, consider placing your own artificial nest boxes.

Methods vary

Doss Earnest of Greenwood likes to put his boxes on sandbars in local rivers.

“We were surprised to find fish in most all of our boxes on those submerged bars even when very little other cover was around,” he said.

Doss says that there are perils when setting on bars, particularly sloughing banks and shifting sands.

“You can leave a box on a bar, and it may stay for weeks or be swallowed up overnight — and there really is no way to predict it,” he said.

It’s no secret that flatheads love woody cover, so most any place that contains snags, blowdowns, washed-out roots and log jams is good flathead habitat. Grabblers actually help the fish by providing artificial nesting structure in places where natural cover may have been removed.

I stopped to talk with David Durham in Marks a while back, and took a look in the bottom of his 14-foot johnboat. Durham had several nice cats he had caught in area waters. He explained that several of the boxes he had run that day contained thousands of newly hatched catfish fingerlings — fish that would go on to restock the population and were hatched in artificial structure placed by the anglers.

While some people are concerned with the fact that hand grabbing is a sport founded on removing spawning fish from their nesting cavities, a large number of anglers who engage in this sport practice catch and release.

“I like the idea of letting those big spawning females go and do their thing. As you know, a 50-pound flathead can have a ton of little ones,” said Quinn McClurg of Vicksburg.

“CPR” in the angling world is the abbreviation for Catch, Photo and Release. And that was just what Quinn did with the 60-plus-pound female tabby he caught last year in central Mississippi. Quinn hopes that big sow will be even bigger this year.

Mississippi regulation changes in 2005 prohibited the placement of anything but wooden containers in the public waters of the state. Many anglers used plastic barrels before the change, but now must use wooden boxes if they place any new artificial structure in public waters. Cypress is probably the most preferred material because of the longer life of this wood, but some people make their boxes out of sweet gum, oak and plywood.

Because wood floats, you either have to pre-soak the boxes or put them out ahead of time and weight them down so they’ll eventually sink. It’ll take several days or even weeks for the wood to soak up enough water so that it will stay on the bottom, but even then you’ll have to add some weights to keep it down.

Pre-soaking the boxes is easily done at home, but the things weigh a ton, and are very difficult to get to the boat and then into the water.

Scotty Lee from Smithdale prefers to use 4-foot-square boxes. He says you can catch a pair of 40-pounders out of a box this size. Lee normally sinks his boxes near the bank in chest-deep water, and prefers a soft mud or sandy bottom. He has grabbled in Lake Mary, Old River at Natchez, Ross Barnett, Pickwick and the Mississippi River.

Jim Cole of Vicksburg has been grabbling close to 17 years. He says that earlier in the season usually produces bigger fish for him. Cole normally catches fish in the 2- to 12-pound range until the end of June, and then the action tends to slack off. He prefers areas with a hard bottom over softer ones, and he places barrels cut in half with an opening in the top side in his private pond. He cuts an “X” in the top and then folds down the quartered sections to avoid getting cut and scraped on the jagged edges that usually occur when you cut a round or square hole.

Other anglers prefer triangular shaped wooden boxes with one corner removed for the entrance hole.

Scott Brown from Clarke County prefers to fish rock shelves in the local rivers near his home. He says those shelves may appear solid, but they often contain cavities below the water line. Those natural cavities caused by erosion are where they find the big ones.

Brown says that a man who has never grabbled will holler like a little girl the first time out.

“He’s breathing on me, he’s breathing on me!” is the phrase one of Brown’s friends said on his first grabbling trip.

Some grabblers suggest that in areas of heavy angling pressure not to mark your boxes and try to avoid running them when others are in the area. Although boxes placed in public waters can’t be really claimed by any one individual, it is considered bad juju to run boxes other than your own. That doesn’t stop some folks.

In this case, mark your locations with a GPS. This way you don’t have to put out a visual marker for the entire world to see. It is also more pleasing to the eye without having to look at 1,756 pieces of fluorescent flagging hanging up and down the edges of the river or lake.

What you can, can’t do

There are as many ways to go about hand grabbing as there are places to do it. Most avid hand grabbers suggest tagging along with someone who knows what they are doing so you can get a feel for the sport before going at it alone.

There is no length limit on the cats, and you can keep as many as you catch, although many grabblers suggest that you release the females. Many anglers also suggest to only take what you need and turn the other fish loose. A big cat will provide several pounds of meat, so you don’t have to bring home every fish.

The regulations state that you may use hand or rope only — no attachments to the rope like gaffs, hooks or metal tips. It is unlawful to alter any natural areas by placing boards, wire or any other obstruction to said logs, holes, etc., or to take fish from such altered devices. Any person grabbling for fish must have a valid sport fishing license.

Remember that you can only place wooden containers in the public waters of Mississippi, and it is unlawful to raise any part of a natural or artificial device out of the water, thereby aiding in the capture of the enclosed fish.

Quinn McClurg grabbed this 50-pound yellow monster in the south Delta.
This 30-pound blue cat came from the upper end of the Yazoo drainage system. The Coldwater River is full of blue and yellow cats.
Stevie Garrett (left) and Justin Brown (right) grabbed these fish in Simpson County.
There are only a few public ramps on the Yazoo River system, like this brand-new boat ramp on the Yazoo River in Greenwood. From Greenwood, the next ramp is 50 river-miles south at Belzoni.
Catfish aren’t the only critters ready for a finger-food snack. Watch out for alligator snapping turtles. This large one came from the Tallahatchie River.





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