Hannah Barron dove underwater hoping to feel a big catfish in a wooden box, and she got just what she wanted.
She felt the fish, and promptly thrust her hand into its massive mouth, and suddenly, the battle was on and Barron got a quick ride. The enraged flathead catfish spun her around and swam about 10 feet underwater.
“He just straight left here with me holding on, and I went under about 10 feet before I popped up,” Barron said. “My dad was looking for me, and I popped up with the fish. That’s the one that put the scar on me. He was just a mean one.
“All I could think about was ‘just hold on, just hold on; don’t let that fish go no matter what.’ You don’t really have time to think until you’re running out of air, and then you think, ‘uh oh, I gotta get up and get some air.’”
As the fish tried to twist and spin to break her grip, the 5-foot tall, 115-pound woman finally gained an edge.
“I finally dug my feet into the bottom and pushed up and broke the surface,” Barron said. “I was too impatient to jump in there and tangle with that cat so I didn’t take time to put on my glove and he got me good. I came out of the water with blood running down my arm, and I thought it was his blood, but when I finally got my arm out of his mouth I realized he’d really scraped me good.”
While this young lady likes to fish and hunt, she enjoys hand grabbing or noodling monster catfish the most, and she’s been doing that for the last five years. Though relatively small when it comes to hand grabbing or noodling standards, she is a force to be reckoned with. She takes care of business.
“I run my arm all the way down into the fish and grab some guts,” Barron said. “And then I hang on for dear life!”
“About five years ago a game warden, Brad Gavins, moved down beside us, and he came over one day and said, ‘y’all want to go noodling?’” Barron said. “I said ‘heck yeah!’”
Hannah was about 15 years old when she made her first hand grabbing trip with Gavins and her dad Jeff Barron. She’s never looked back.
While Barron does like to fish in the more traditional manner, it’s become harder to hold a rod and reel in her hand now that she’s tasted a bit of noodling, as she calls it.
“I might spend several hours fishing to catch a nice bass, but you can catch a monster flathead or blue cat in 15 to 20 minutes if you hit the right hole and that fish is in there,” Barron said.
While she was a bit unsure of going under and sticking her arm into a hole at first, it only took one bite from a big catfish to set her on fire.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, I reckon,” Barron said. “Cause you gotta be a certain kinda crazy to love it, and we love it that you go down there wanting something to bite you.
“They’ll tear your arm up if you ain’t got that welding sleeve on. I’ve got the scars from some of those monster blue cats to prove it, too. Sometimes those mean blues will spin and twist and tear that sleeve or glove off, and they’ll hurt you. And they bite 10 times harder than a flathead cat.”
Although it may be hard for some to believe that a young lady would enjoy getting bit and wrestling with catfish almost as long as she is tall, Barron relishes the opportunity and is passionate about it, no less. After tangling and whipping one ornery 35-pound flathead cat that the group had on film, they posted it to Facebook and Instagram and on another page, and it went viral with over 20 million views at last count.
Going for the monsters
While the average cat grabbed is in the 10- to 15-pound range, the group does catch some monster cats pretty frequently, and it’s those monster cats that give Hannah a run for her money. The take the excitement to another level.
“Actually the smaller blue cats are harder to hold onto because their mouths are so small that I can’t really get a good hold on them, and they’ll twist off sometime,” Barron said. “But those monster cats from 30 to 50 pounds and up are the ones that are really fun.
“I’ve had quite a few of the big ones spin me around and pull me a ways underwater, and occasionally I’ll lose one but not very often. It’s really an adrenalin rush when I get hold of a monster catfish, and we struggle against each other. But when we’re through, I get to eat them.”
After they get a few to eat, they’ll practice a little catch and release and let them go.
“Dad’s largest one yet is a 55-pound flathead,” Barron said. “But he just grabs them by the bottom lip and holds on to that. We don’t gaff them, or run a rope through their mouths or hook them. We want our hand on them for a challenge or not at all. There’s nothing like running my hand down into their throat and grabbing a handful of guts and holding on!”
Where to catch them
Mississippi’s grabbing season — May 1 through July 15 — coincides with the big cats’ spawning season. Blues and flatheads both look for holes, natural or man-made, in which to spawn.
“We find them underwater in holes in the banks, under concrete slabs, old seawalls, pipes and anywhere they may be going to spawn in shallow water,” Barron said. “But we do put out a lot of our own boxes, and we have a place cut out where you can put your feet in and kind of hold yourself in there and block the hole at the same time. Then you grab the side of the box to hold yourself under, and you run your hand down there as far as you can get it and wait for them to bite you.”
The Barrons put their boxes about 4 feet deep and space them pretty far apart so that Hannah can get down to the box easy but still keep folks from finding them and working them when they’re not around.
When it comes to grabbing catfish Hannah Barron thinks everyone should give it a try if they take a notion.
“If you want to do it, then don’t be scared to try it,” said Barron. “Everybody asks ‘what if you grab something besides a catfish?’ Well ain’t nothing going to be in that hole but a catfish because he’s meaner than any other animal in that lake or river.
“The first time we went, a boy went under first and he came up holding one with one hand, a 70-pound blue cat and that cat started twisting and spun his arm around and took all the hide of the top of his hand and got away,” Barron said. “It was really exciting.”
Hot spot: The Rez
Tony Holeman dove down into the murky water of Ross Barnett Reservoir, ran his hand down into a wooden box and felt a big catfish. Holeman grabbed hold of its mouth, clamped down on his jaw, wrestled it out of the box and headed for the surface.
As the monster appaloosa catfish neared the surface and spotted the boat, it thrashed wildly trying to spin and break Holeman’s iron-fisted grip. Holeman held on with every ounce of strength he could muster and held on just long enough to hoist the 62-pound flathead catfish into the boat.
What makes a perfectly sane high school teacher want to jump in the water with the alligators, snakes and monster snapping turtles and risk losing his life or limbs?
“Hand grabbing monster catfish gives me an adrenalin rush that’s unbelievable,” said Holeman, who has been noodling for 10 years. “We do it for fun, but we also eat everything we take out. Of course we throw back the small ones and let them grow up some more but the big appaloosa cats really give you a fight, and they’re tasty indeed!”
Holeman always wanted to do it when he was young but never got the chance.
“It looked like fun, and I wanted to try it, and even to this day I have to psyche myself out to jump into that water and go under and get in that log,” Holeman said. “My hand-grabbing partner is Sidney Coke, and we never hand grab alone,” said Holeman. “There’s a big safety issue there, and if you’re with someone you have a backup in case something goes wrong. If you’re by yourself you could get in trouble and might not make it out of the water.”
Holeman usually carries a stick down under with him and runs it up in the hole while somebody else plugs it up to prevent a fish from swimming out until they can get their hands on it.
“If it’s a big blue cat then they’ll usually bite it the second you put the stick in there,” said Holeman. “That’s how you know which one you have in there because the flatheads don’t usually bite the stick.”
If you’re not careful an old blue cat will really tear up your skin.
“I like to use a good quality sport glove like a batting glove with Velcro that’s tight and snug, too,” Holeman said. “That allows me to grip the fish and hold on while also preventing getting torn up from the cat’s teeth. But they’ll eventually tear that glove up, too.”
Where to find them
While some people fish the rivers, creeks and other areas looking for holes in the banks, and hollow logs, Holeman and company fish The Rez exclusively, and only grab out of man-made structures, which helps prevent problems from snakes, gators and snapping turtles.
“Everything has to be made of wood for us,” Holeman said. “You don’t get near as many blues with wood either, which is a good thing. We make all of our catfish boxes and we make several sizes like a 2-foot by 3-foot box, 3 by 3, 3 by 4 and 3 by 5 and 18-inches tall.”
Holeman uses any type of slatted wood he can find, and the boards off of wood fencing will do just fine.
“We like to put our boxes near some type of natural wood where the catfish are already going and they’ll come right on into our boxes,” said Holeman. “We’ll put them in about 6 feet of water and have 15 to 20 in an area of the lake where we can run them all in one trip. We also mark them with a handheld GPS so that we can find them easily, and that also keeps other people from running them while we’re not out there.
“The bigger the box the bigger the opportunity to catch a big fish. And there’s only one hole in the box. The flathead cats come into the boxes and spawn, laying their eggs in the box.”
Normally Holeman will run 15 to 20 holes on one trip and grab as many cats as he can. If the fish are spawning the gang might grab a fish in every other hole, but if they’re not bedding then they’re more likely to come up with nothing.
“We typically run the boxes every week or two when I’m able,” Holeman said.
He has actually caught fish from the same box only 2 or 3 days apart so the cats do move up to spawn and replenish some of the same holes on a daily basis.
“Big cats like a hard sandy bottom to spawn on so we’ll look for areas like that to put our boxes too,” Holeman said.
Holeman and crew basically hand grab all over Barnett Reservoir, and that gives them plenty of fresh water to fish.
“We do it all over the reservoir from upriver, to the main lake to the backs of creeks,” said Holeman. “We like to mix it up a little bit and we’ll take a bunch of kids with us to give them an opportunity to go along and learn something new and have a fun time doing it.
“We love fried catfish. I can pull two big tabby cats and feed up to 40 people from one trip. The big tabby cats are the best to eat and you can fry them up and break them apart and eat them. We like to cut them ¾ inch thick and 3 to 4 inches long and 1½ inches wide.”
When to go
“The season always opens May 1 and runs through July 15,” said Holeman. “The season is actually set to coincide with their spawning time because that’s when the big cats move shallow, and you can find them and catch them in their shallow water spawning areas. The blues usually move in to spawn first, and then the big flatheads come in a bit later, sometimes by mid June. “
If you’re looking for something different with fast paced adrenalin-filled action then hand-grabbing monster catfish is something you should try.