For some reason, today I am into team sports, so I decided to write about grabbling. It has many names: hogging, noodling, dogging, and stumping. “Hand fishing” is its official name, but I don't like that appellation, so it's grabbling to me. That's what my father taught me, and that's what it will be.
They even practice this in our mother country of England. There, it is called guddling. Well, they never could talk right, so I don't expect them to spell it right either.
Back in my father's day near Ramer, Tenn., any means to supply the dinner table with victuals were utilized, and one of those ways was grabbling. Their modus operandi was to poke around with their feet and hands looking for a hollowed log or a hole under a muddy bank.
The size of the fish determined how it was brought out. If the fish was small, the grabbler's hand was stuck into its mouth, after which the fish bit down. If it was a big one, a really big one — one big enough to wrestle with you — then a hole was poked through the lower jaw and a rope was tied. Your companion(s) operated the other end of the rope.
Gloves were often worn to protect hands while grabbling and manhandling the fish.
Down in Tallahatchie County, Miss., the swamp angels' technique differs slightly from my father's method of grabbling. Scattered up and down the Tallahatchie River are submerged “logs,” made from two 55-gallon, plastic soap barrels. One end of each barrel to be cut away. Then one barrel is pushed slightly inside the other and they are bolted together. The log ends then have 12-inch holes cut out for catfish to enter for spawning.
During the grabbling season — middle of May to the middle of July — the barrels are checked every few days. In the early part of the season, one is more likely to catch white cat, while in the latter part of the season, yellow cat.
A grabbler motors up to the barrel, gets in the water, put his hand into the hole, and feels around. If a cat is present, it is just a matter of putting a hand into its mouth and bringing it out. It might be a male or female, because each takes a turn sitting on the eggs.
Another method practiced on Buzzard Bayou and Swan Lake is to take a green cane, not a dry one, and poke it down into barrels or tree stumps. If something mushy, like jelly, is felt, a catfish has been located. Running the cane along its back, a grabbler is able to determine the size of the catfish. If it is small — under 10 pounds — it is left alone. If bigger, then the grabbler goes in, possibly to wrestle.
A yellow or flathead cat will not give much of a fight. It will open its mouth and give up. Not so a white or blue cat — the grabbler can expect quite a wrestling match before a white or blue cat gives up.
Who are the swamp angels down in Tallahatchie County? C.L. Smith, Randy Davis, Payne Spence, and Murry Hardy. A few days ago, Murry pulled a 75-pound yellow cat from the Tallahatchie River. Three days later, from the same barrel, he pulled a 70-pounder. Years ago, C.L. grabbled a 63-pounder from a cypress stump in Buzzard Bayou and, at another time, a 57-pounder from the same stump. C.L. has been grabbling for some 40 years.
The biggest my father every grabbled was a 75-pounder from the Tuscumbia River near Pocahontas, Tenn.
What more could one ask for than good old country fun spent grabbling? It's something concrete monolithic cities and asphalt jungles cannot furnish nor compete with.
Wayne Capooth — outdoorsman, writer, and physician — is medical director at the University of Memphis Student Health Services. He has written four books: The History of the Millsaps Family, Red Letter Days, The Golden Age of Waterfowling, and The Golden Age of Hunting.