Catfish, by hand, cranks up in May

Grabbing for big flathead and blue catfish begins May 1 in Mississippi.
Grabbing for big flathead and blue catfish begins May 1 in Mississippi.

Grabbing is a favorite tactic for many Mississippians

Taking catfish by hand is growing in popularity, especially with cable TV networks highlighting this brazen method of fishing. The guys and girls who do it love it; the rest of us question their intelligence quotient.

Seriously, going underwater, in water usually so muddy you can’t see your nose, sticking a foot or a hand into a hole — be it a stump, bank, ramp, or man-made box — hoping it gets bit; I mean, what could go wrong?

“Yeah, we get that kind of reaction all the time,” said Jimmy Thomas of Grenada. “The questions I get are, ‘Aren’t you afraid of getting bit by a snake, or a turtle, or a gator?’ I always tell them the same thing: ‘I’m just hoping to get bit by a 70-pound catfish, or bigger.’ It kills me when they get that horrid look on their face, or they just cuss and shake their heads.”

Mississippi’s hand-grabbing season opened May 1 and runs through July 15, which is timed to match the spawning season of flathead and blue catfish. The big females will choose a nest to lay their eggs; they prefer an old, hollow stump, a washed-out hole in a bank, a cavity below a boat ramp or culvert, or, as Thomas prefers, one of his man-made fish boxes.

“They are legal in most Mississippi waters, as long as you abide by the rules regarding materials you use,” he said. “We make ours out of wood and weigh them down with big rocks and mud. They all have about a 10-inch box, enclosed completely except for a very small hole in the back and a bigger hole, or door, in the front. That gives the fish access to the box and gives us a place to put our hand.

“When one of us goes down, first, we use a foot to block the opening so the fish can’t escape. Then, we sink under and stick a hand in. A big, aggressive female will bite the intruding hand. That’s the goal.””

Once the fish chomps down, the nut, I mean fisherman, must be quick and grab the lower jaw and remove the fish, subdue it against his or her body and wrestle it to the surface.

All that has to happen before the idiot, I mean fisherman, runs out of oxygen.

“It’s not insane, but that time between it biting you and you getting it to the surface is so crazy and such an adrenalin rush that once you’ve done it, you can’t wait to do it again,” Thomas said. “We’ve got a team of four of us who always grab together, and we usually make it a point to bring a new person with us each trip. If the newbie wants to participate, fine. It might just be blocking the hole at first while another person grabs, or it might be just helping subdue the fish. But, almost always, before the day is over, they will want to do the grabbing, especially if we find a box with a 15- to 30-pound cat in it. Better one that size than a 50- or 60-pounder.”

Thomas and company make it a point to grab as often during the 2½-month season as possible, and to release far more fish than they keep.

“Rarely will we keep a fish over 20 pounds,” he said, “and for sure, anything over 40 or 50 goes back. It’s more about the thrill for us, not taking fish home to fry. We can catch enough small, eating-size fish on hook and line.”

Bobby Cleveland
About Bobby Cleveland 1222 Articles
Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.