As Michael Willoughby of Brandon vanished beneath the waters of Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson, I couldn’t believe what I saw. He’d already gone underwater at this same spot, and when he’d come up dripping wet, he’d announced, “We’ve got one in there.”
His fishing buddy, Stephen Bowden, also of Brandon, got in the water with Willoughby and stood where Willoughby was standing with his feet and legs in the opening of a catfish box to block the opening of the underwater box to keep the flathead catfish from getting out. Willoughby went underwater to stick his hand in the box to hopefully grab the lunker by the jaw and pull it out of the box.
My friend and guide on this trip, Preston Pittman of Pickens, said, “While Mike’s underwater, he’ll stick his hand in the box and hope the catfish will bite his gloved hand. If the catfish bites his hand, Mike will put his thumb under the catfish’s lower jaw, close his hand and pull that catfish out of the box with his right hand. He’ll roll his body to the right, put his left hand under the catfish’s head and lock the catfish’s body down with his left arm. This way, he has the catfish under his arm, and the cat’s immobilized. Then, Mike will stand on top of the box, look at the cat and see if it’s one we want to keep.”
In less than one minute, we saw Willoughby back on top of the water with a 20-pound-plus catfish under his arm.
Every year, Willoughby and Bowden build catfish boxes and sink them in Ross Barnett. Each May, they return to these boxes and check them for flathead catfish. When ready to spawn, flatheads like to go into some type of cave, box or dark place to lay their eggs. The more habitat that’s in the water for the catfish to spawn, the more flatheads that will be produced for the coming year.
“We always put out more boxes than we fish to make sure the flatheads have more boxes to spawn in each year than they’ve had before,” Willoughby said.
The catfish boxes built and sunk by Bowden and Willoughby resemble Chihuahua doghouses, since they’re short and flat with 10-inch-square holes in their fronts. They build these heavy boxes with rough lumber, load them onto their boats, take them out to the Rez and sink them. Although flathead catfish will spawn in any type of cave, hole, box or tube, the men prefer to use these boxes. They’ve developed a technique incorporating the boxes that puts more flathead cats in their boats than any other strategy.
“I go underwater with a stick and ease it into the box to see if catfish are there,” Willoughby says. “If a catfish is in the box, I put both my feet at the mouth of the box and stand up. This way, the catfish can’t come out of the box. The grabber comes up next to me, dives underwater, reaches his gloved hand into the box and lets the catfish bite his hand. Then, he grabs hold of the catfish’s bottom jaw and pulls it out of the box.
“A right-handed catcher will grab the catfish with his right hand, and as he pulls the catfish out of the box, he’ll wrap his left hand around the cat, so it can’t roll. Then he’ll bring it to the surface.
“Once we get a catfish on top of the water, if it’s one we want to keep, we put it on a stringer, pull it into the boat and place it on ice. Many times the people with us will stand on top of the box until the catcher gets the cat and brings it to the surface.”
According to Bowden, they prefer to take beginners to shallow boxes, so they don’t have to stay underwater for much time.
“We sink our boxes from 3- to 6-feet deep,” he said. “Then if the beginners run out of air, they simply can put their feet down and stand up.
“Shallow-water boxes often pay off in just the same number and size of catfish as our deep-water boxes. This way of catfishing is legal in Mississippi and a few other states. We always suggest that a first-time hand-grabber wear a glove, because the flathead catfish has sandpaper-like teeth. If you grab the cat without a glove, and it starts twisting and turning, many times it can peel that top layer of skin off the back of your hand.”
On our recent hand-grabbing trip, two different times we had two cats in one box. To catch both cats, we let the first person go down and stick his hand in the box. We waited on the catfish to bite, tried to slowly pull it out of the box and wrestle it to the surface. The blocker, usually Willoughby or Bowden, put his bare feet in the box to try to block the remaining catfish and keep it from coming out of the box. The second person then went down to catch the second cat.
Catching two 20-pound catfish out of one box isn’t uncommon, because often a male and a female will be in the same box. Then you’ll really have fun hand-grabbing catfish, since you’ll have two catfish, two catchers and one blocker in the boat at the same time. When those catfish start coming to the surface, a fourth person climbs in the water with a stringer to string-up the catfish and bring them back to the boat.
A catfish-grabbing trip is more than a fishing trip — it’s one big party, an event and a trip you’ll remember for a lifetime. We had four or five boats on our catfishing trip to Ross Barnett Reservoir, and everyone got involved. When you’re standing on the box, through your feet, you can feel the catfish moving-around and the grabber trying to get the cat.
Many hand-grabbers will cut off the ends of hot-water tanks and sink them to make catfish boxes. Some people will use PVC pipe and all types of structures that have holes in them, so a catfish can go in and create a nest inside that hole. However, when you cut off the end of a hot-water tank or use other structures, Willoughby and Bowden have found that they’re not nearly as efficient as the boxes.
“We’ve learned that we can control the catfish better and catch more cats using our homemade boxes than we can with any other type of structure,” Bowden says. “The wooden boxes won’t cut or scrape the catcher like a rusty water tank or a PVC pipe may.
“Also, by designing our boxes with a hole in the front of each, Mike and I can put our feet in those holes and keep the catfish from escaping, until we can get someone to go underwater and reach inside the hole and get the cat. We also prefer the boxes, because we like to take friends with us hand-grabbing.”
Flathead cats are delicious to eat, if you know how to clean and cook them.
“Some people have a problem with hand-grabbing because we’re catching the catfish off the beds,” Pittman said. “However, there are numbers of flathead catfish in Ross Barnett Reservoir, and of course, not all the catfish will be in all the boxes. Catfish have natural places to spawn, too.
“Also, Steve and Mike never go to some of the boxes they build and sink, because they want to make sure the catfish have enough places to spawn to reproduce more flathead catfish. The hand-grabbers are extremely conservation-minded. They know that to continue their sport, they have to make sure there’s a healthy population of flathead cats in the reservoir at all times. They put out more boxes than they can fish to make sure a new generation of flathead cats will be born each summer, and that this sport can continue.”
Willoughby has kept records of all his catfish-grabbing trips and knows the number and size of cats he catches steadily has increased, since he’s been putting out catfish boxes.
After spending a day with this catfish-grabbing crew, I’d return again in a minute. This sport is one of the most exciting and fun I’d ever participated in outdoors. I’d seen hand-grabbing on TV and read about it in magazines; however, I’d never experienced an official trip with a hand-grabbing catfish team.
All members of our team took part in the event throughout the entire day and talked about how many catfish they caught. Cold drinks, snacks, suntan lotion, sunglasses, a dry towel, old tennis shoes and a bathing suit were all the items you needed for a hand-grabbing adventure.
A special breed of fisherman sticks his hand in a dark hole underwater and lets a catfish bite it.
“Grabbing cats out of the boxes on Ross Barnett is fun,” Pittman said. “But the real thrill is to catch the cats in the rivers.
“However, I won’t put my hand in some of those holes down on the river, although Mike has caught catfish, both flatheads and blues, weighing over 90 pounds in rivers. When you’ve got a 90-pound catfish at the end of your hand rolling, biting and trying to wrench itself free, you can get hurt. I prefer to watch Mike and Steve when they go to the river for cats.”
This year, I hope to go on one of those river-catfish adventures. But I understand that the water in the river has to be right, and the river has to be clear and steady to find the cats and grab them with just your bare hand.
For more than 40 years, John E. Phillips has been a full-time outdoor writer who travels throughout the South, gathering information on hunting, fishing and other outdoor pursuits.