You are submerged in murky water, too stained to see your hand in front of your face. You’re not wearing a mask, you have no way to breathe and someone is pushing you down.
In the wet darkness, you feel with your hands, find an opening and reach in.
Then something mysterious and very powerful bites your hand up to the wrist, clamping down so hard you wince, half out of fear and half out of excitement, putting more strain on your already empty lungs.
Sound like a horror movie or a nightmare?
Oddly enough, this is fishing, or at least it is for many catfish fans who like to battle their blues and flatheads by hand. It is called noodling, grabbling or hand-grabbing, and people who do it are called noodlers, grabblers or hand-grabbers.
They are also called lunatics.
Noodlers go under water, reach into about a 6- by 8-inch opening, hoping a giant blue or, preferably, a flathead catfish will bite their hand. Without protection, the rough teeth of these creatures will tear the hide from fingers, hands, wrists and if it big enough to reach that far, forearms.
Then, the tug of war begins, and often it’s tough to tell if the human has the catfish, or the catfish has the fisherman. The angler has the advantage of strength, leverage and, you’d think, common sense, but this is a person who has put himself or herself in this position, so the common-sense angle is questionable. The catfish has one huge advantage: it can breathe underwater.
If the human can hold onto enough breath to endure the fight, the adrenaline-aided strength and leverage prevails. Once the fish is clear of the hole, the fisherman rolls it on its side and presses its belly against the rib cage, under the arm to control it. Only then can he or she stand and take a deep breath.
The nightmare — or the excitement — is over.
Noodling, as odd as it sounds, attracts men, women, boys and girls, all willing to go underwater, reach in a hole and battle catfish that often weigh upwards of 50 pounds.
“There is a method for a successful catch,” said Greg Parker of XXXXXX, who has been hand grabbing for 20 years and has introduced dozens of newcomers to the sport. “Boys, girls, men, women; I don’t know anyone who has quit grabbing because they were scared.
“I know there are those who don’t keep it up after they have tried it, but that is usually because the lack the support system needed to keep it up. I’ve seen so many young women give it a try and be very good at it.”
He’d like to see more give it a try. The key is finding an “in.”
Where to begin
Interested persons will find little aside from articles. It is really best to have a mentor for your first experience. Once you have a few fish under your belt, expanding the experience is totally up to the individual. Devotees have formed an organization, the Mississippi Handgrabbers Association. Their Facebook page — www.facebook.com/Grabbin/ — has lots of pictures and good information.
“The sport has grown all across Mississippi,” said Dwain Brister of McComb, MSHGA’s president. “We held our first statewide tournament in 2014 and continue to see an increase in participants with each event.”
Fear of what might be waiting in a submerged is an obstacle for many.
Let’s dispel a few of the myths that are common in the sport. Turtles, snakes and alligators are not going to spend any amount of time in a nesting box. All of these creatures must breathe air from the surface and have never been reported to inhabit the boxes.
Generally, the hole in the box is about 6 inches, either a circle or a square. Snapping turtles and alligators are just too big to fit in the hole. What will be in the nest are large amounts of catfish eggs and those fishes that feed on those eggs, primarily small catfish and panfish brave enough to dash in for a meal at the risk of becoming eaten by the nesting fish.
Holes in banks, spaces under logjams and abandoned beaver hut tunnels also offer nesting cavities for catfish, and many noodlers prefer natural holes. For our purposes, we are going to discuss only man-made boxes.
Searching for box plans was an exercise in frustration. There are no pre-set measurements that need to be followed when building a box, and most grabbers just use whatever they have around, but regulations restrict on what materials may be used and where the boxes may be placed in Mississippi.
According to Jerry Brown, a fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, blue and flathead catfish prefer a cavity for spawning purposes. Catfish boxes must be constructed mostly of wood; no metal, concrete or PVC pipes or boxes may be used.
“Water heaters, plastic buckets, concrete pipes and PVC pipes are a few of the illegal cavity nests we encounter,” Brown said. “Wood is the only acceptable material for a man-made box. The regulations are published in the Outdoor Digest each year.”
Placement of boxes is not allowed on some bodies of water, and noodling is prohibited on others. Boxes may not be used in state lakes or state-park lakes, and the sport is illegal on all Mississippi waters of the Tenn-Tom Waterway. Barnett Reservoir allows boxes but has specific regulations regarding placing attractors.
Building a box
There is no standard for the size of the box, just as there is no standard for the natural cavities catfish have found acceptable for centuries. As a grabber, you will want to think about the box being big enough to hold a large fish, but not so cavernous that the fish can retreat to the rear of the box and remain out of reach. A length of 30 inches is a good starting point.
The opening in one end of the box should be about 6 inches high and 8 inches wide, big enough to allow the catfish access and provide the grabber with adequate room for his or her arm. A smaller hole on the opposite end, just large enough for a prodding stick, allows an assistant to move the fish in the direction of the grabbers’ hand, should that be necessary.
Other dimensions are an inside height of 8 to 10 inches, and a width of 20 to 22 inches.
“Our boxes vary in size to accommodate the size of the catfish we are targeting,” Brister said. “A flathead that weighs 40 to 50 pounds will fill a small box, but double or triple the size of the box and you may find three or four large cats in the same cavity. We once pulled four females and one male from a box. They were packed in like sardines. Multiple fish in the same nest are not at all uncommon.”
Put a box where catfish want to nest is important.
The general rule for box placement is a level bottom at a depth where the grabber can stand flat-footed with his or her head above the surface. Being close to a creek bed or channel is a plus, as catfish like being near deeper water most of the time. Placing several boxes in a line is a preferred method that can streamline a day on the water.
Strange as it might seem, a disturbance caused by removing a fish from the box will not cause fish in an adjoining box to flee.
Being able to find a box once it is submerged is not as simple as it may seem, although modern technology like GPS have made it a lot easier.
Parker uses landmarks such as trees, water tanks and channel markers to align himself in such a way to locate his boxes. Other people use the compass app on their iPhone or devices in their boats to locate precise latitude and longitude.
A short pole of some sort, not unlike the handle of a golf club, is also handy when panning the bottom. After a few trips, finding the location becomes second nature.
Keeping the box in place can be an issue for beginners. Strong currents can relocate a box or cause it to float away before the siltation holds it in place. One solution is using a biodegradable bag, such as a croaker sack filled with small stones or gravel. As the sack degrades, the stones will settle into the mud nearby. Place the boxes at least 6 to 8 feet apart, but there is no wrong distance.
With proper diving apparatus, deeper water can be explored, and that has led to some of the biggest catches reported at lakes like Barnett Reservoir, but such equipment is costly and requires some training.
Most grabbers wear old jeans and shirts, while a few wear swimsuits. Basically, they wear whatever is comfortable.
Gloves and arm protection are essential; big cats can easily get your fist and wrist in their mouth. A 15- to 20-pound blue cat has some serious teeth that will remove skin with the equal ferocity of a wood rasp. Gloves with long arms or cut-off legs from denim pants held in place by duct tape are strongly recommended.
The Mississippi hand-grabbing season opens May 1 and closes July 15. There is no limit or size restriction on catfish caught. Many grabbers limit the number of big fish they keep for several reasons. Bigger fish, those over 20 pounds, may contain higher levels of lead, arsenic and mercury, which are harmful to humans. Older fish are also top breeders, laying thousands of eggs every spring.
Noodling boxes do make it easier to find and catch large catfish, but at the same time appear beneficial to the catfish population by providing excellent nests to encourage spawning.
“Each year we hear of hundreds of pounds of catfish being pulled from Barnett Reservoir,” said fisheries biologist Tom Holman of MDWFP, “and each year there seems to be a stable population for the new season.”
Holman says any changes in the regulations will be published in the Outdoor Digest and released to the public in online press releases.
Those placing boxes in a body of water must have written permission from the entity with control over that body. For instance, the Pearl River Valley Water Supply District controls Barnett Reservoir.
Nesting boxes are considered by the state to be fish attractors, meaning anyone can use them. If you happen across some boxes and decide to remove the fish, you are not breaking the law; however, the owner may want to inflict loud verbal abuse. Be ethical, fish your boxes or those you have permission to fish.
And have fun.