Mississippi's Offbeat Catfishing

Tight-lining for channel cats may be the most popular way of fishing, but not the only way to catch Magnolia State catfish. Here are some other possibilities. (May 2010)

Using pool "noodles" instead of plastic jugs is becoming more popular among anglers in Mississippi.
Photo by Cliff Covington.

In Mississippi, we fish for catfish in a number of ways. We use poles, rods and reels, trotlines, yo-yos, and even nets to capture these whiskered warriors of the deep. But beyond those, there are two other methods that are gaining growing followings.

HAND GRABBING
Hand grabbing is an extreme sport, even by today's standards, but its roots are quite ancient. In fact, the first written record of hand grabbing in America was by a trader/historian named James Adair.

In 1775 he wrote about Southern Indians using a "surprising method of fishing under the edges of rocks. They pull off their long slip of Stroud cloth, and wrapping it around their arm; they dive under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun: as soon as those fierce aquatic animals see that tempting bait, they immediately seize it with the greatest violence. Then is the time for the diver to improve the favorable opportunity: he accordingly opens his hand, seizes the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it and at last brings it safe ashore."

Today's hand grabbers utilize the very same techniques that Adair witnessed over two centuries ago. The biggest difference is that the Southern Indians were interested solely in putting food in their bellies, while modern-day hand grabbers are driven more by the excitement of the sport.

The experience is indescribable unless you've tried it for yourself. There's something about sticking your hand in a dark underwater hole and not knowing what will happen. This anticipation is what hooks people on the sport and keeps them coming back for more.

Hand grabbing is known across the South by a wide variety of terms. Depending on what southern state you happen to be in at the time, you may hear it referred to by such names as stumping, graveling, tickling, dogging, grabbling, and noodling. "Noodling" is probably the most fitting term for the sport. It is derived from the word "noodle," which Webster's dictionary defines as a very stupid person; a fool. But I bet Mr. Webster never went noodling or he might not have been so harsh in his definition of the word.

But for those of us who regularly practice this artful sport, we know it simply as "hand grabbing". After all, that is what you actually do -- grab hold of the catfish with your bare hands.

But before you get the idea that this is a "redneck" sport practiced only by characters that resemble extras in the movie "Deliverance", keep in mind that we have folks from all tiers of society in our fold. In fact, Mississippi's own Kristi Addis, Miss Teen USA 1987, proudly informed judges at the pageant that "grabbing for catfish on the Yalobusha River" was one of her favorite pastimes.

In Mississippi, the hand-grabbing season runs from May 1 to July 15, the peak spawning period for catfish. Each spring, pairs of catfish scour the muddy shorelines of rivers and lakes in search of the perfect place to lay their eggs. After locating a cavern-like shelter, the female catfish will lay a compact egg mass consisting of the 4,000 to 100,000 eggs.

Almost immediately after depositing her eggs, the female abandons the nest, leaving them under the watchful eye of the male catfish. The male remains on the nest, keeping the eggs aerated and the predators at bay, until the young fry are ready to get out on their own. The male will be aggressive and strike out at anything that comes near the nest -- including hand grabbers.

Of all the hand grabbers that I have encountered over the years, there seems to be two completely different types who pursue the sport in entirely dissimilar environments. The first type of hand grabber is the kind that does it to put some fresh catfish fillets in the freezer. These grabbers target smaller catfish in the 2- to 10-pound range. The grabber is most often found practicing the craft on an old oxbow lake or a reservoir.

Then there is the second type who savors the challenge and adrenaline rush that accompanies landing a monster catfish. These individuals are solely after the true giants of the murky water -- any catfish weighing less than 30 pounds is considered child's play. This is a team sport, usually consisting of six to 10 players, and their playing fields are the vast river systems found across the Magnolia State.

I have been fortunate to share some memorable experiences with both types in each one's favorite setting. My friend Kirby Field and his son Caleb took me along on my first oxbow lake hand-grabbing adventure. Obviously, they fall into the first category of hand grabbers. They just want to catch a nice mess of catfish for the frying pan.

Since most of their hand grabbing is done in the waist deep water of Eagle Lake in pursuit of eating-sized catfish, rarely do you find more than one of them actually in the water at the same time.

The early morning sun glimmered brilliantly off the dark green surface of the oxbow lake as the big outboard pushed the pontoon boat swiftly toward our destination. Over a period of years, the Field family had placed a number of small boxes in strategic locations along Eagle Lake's vast shoreline. Kirby cut the motor and the boat's momentum carried us near a cluster of ancient cypress trees.

Caleb calmly dropped over the side of the pontoon boat and stood upright in the waist deep water. Slowly, he began walking along the outer edge of the cypress grove, feeling his way along the silty bottom with his bare feet. Then he came to a stop, face grimacing, as he slid his bare foot over the surface of the submerged catfish box in order to identify the location of the 10-inch hole cut out of its top. Slowly he lowered his body into the murky water until his shoulders, then his head, disappeared beneath the surface. The only indications of his presence were the intermittent air bubbles that floated up from the lake bottom.

Without warning, Caleb's head erupted through the surface of the calm water as he emerged from the depths, both hands wrapped firmly around a 3-pound yellow cat. In one fluid motion, he tossed the disoriented catfish over the rail of the pontoon boat, where it landed with a thud in the bottom of the 100-quart Igloo ice chest.

"That's the perfect size for frying," Kirby explained, as I poured a bag of ice over the slimy-skinned catfish flopping around in the bottom of the i

ce chest.

It didn't take long for us to gather enough tasty, pan-sized cats for the feast we had planned later that evening.

As with any fishing method, you must have a valid sport fishing license. Hand grabbing is legal in all public waters of the Magnolia State. With the exception of a few state-managed lakes, there is no creel limit on catfish. However, on reciprocal waters with Tennessee, Alabama, and Arkansas, no one is allowed to possess more than one catfish over 34 inches in length.

JUGGING WITH POOL NOODLE
Another offbeat catfishing technique is a variation of jug fishing using pool noodles. This method is one of the easiest and most efficient ways of catching catfish of all sizes and kinds. From small eating-sized channel catfish to the giant trophy-sized blue cats and flatheads, it takes them all.

Basic jug fishing is a lot of fun and an activity for the entire family. Since it is fast paced and doesn't involve a lot of sitting and waiting, jug fishing is an excellent way to get children interested. Jug fishing is never boring. There is always something going on to keep a group involved!

When it comes to jug fishing, there are a couple of attractions in the action. First there's the chance of hooking a really big cat, then hearing and seeing that jug go down with a "whoosh."

Then there's the excitement of the chase. A really big cat may pull a jug a mile or more before you are able to catch up to him and wrestle him in the boat.

Jug fishing has been around for decades. However the practice was first known as "blocking" because blocks of wood were used to float the catfish rigs. These blocks were soon replaced with plastic bottles and jugs of every shape and size, from soft drink bottles to milk jugs.

Nowadays, more serious jug fishers prefer to use floats made from the long, buoyant, foam "pool noodles" that kids bang each other on the head with in the swimming pool.Jugging is a very simple and inexpensive method of catfishing. Essentially, all you need is to find a float, tie on some line, add hooks and a weight, bait it up, and you're ready to go jug fishing. The only other things you need are a boat for chasing your quarry and a big net for boating the cats you hook.

While most any plastic container with a tight-fitting screw-on cap can be used, I prefer to use a variation of the pool noodles. Available in a wide array of bright fluorescent colors, they are easy to see, and most catfish can't hold one under too long. Noodles also signal strikes better than conventional jugs, because when a fish takes your bait the noodle stands straight up out of the water and waves around violently.

Building the kind of catfish noodles I use couldn't be any simpler. Begin by cutting a hollow-cored pool noodle into 12-inch lengths. Next, cut a 1/2-inch plastic PVC pipe into 24-inch pieces. Then glue a PVC cap on one end of each section. Slide one of the foot long pieces of pool noodle on to the pipe from the open end of each pipe. Next, glue on a second cap to secure the noodle on the pipe.

Now tie an appropriate length of line on the protruding piece of pipe so that it cannot slip off. I prefer to use 200-pound-test braided nylon cord as my main line. To the line's lower end, tie a heavy barrel swivel. Next, attach a 2-foot leader line and add a hook and a sinker.

When it comes to hook selection, it is mostly a matter of personal preference. For cats up to 15 pounds, I prefer a stainless 3/0 Kahle hook. However, when I am targeting trophy cats, I like to use a stainless 6/0 circle hook.

Regardless of the style or size hook you choose, make sure the hook you use is either nickel-plated or stainless steel because bronze hooks rust and become dull too quickly. Good sharp hooks are a necessity when it comes to jug fishing.

It goes without saying that you should always check the local regulations for the body of water you plan to jug fish.

According to the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, each licensed angler is allowed to fish up to 25 jugs at a time with no more than two single hooks per jug. Treble or double hooks are prohibited.

On Ross Barnett Reservoir, jug fishing is prohibited in the navigation channels and in the lower portion of the lake. If you plan to jug fish on the flood control lakes of Enid, Sardis, Grenada and Arkabutla, or on the old oxbows of Lake Washington and Eagle Lake, then you need to tag all your jugs with your full name and address.

Another lesser known regulation that applies to these 6 lakes, as well as borderline waters between Arkansas and Mississippi, is that all jugs must be constantly attended by the angler during the daytime.

Jug fishing is not allowed on any state fishing lake. The same goes for portions of a number of lakes, reservoirs and rivers across the state. That is another good reason to check your local fishing regulations on the MDWFP Web site at www.mdwfp.com.

Give one or both of these offbeat catfishing techniques a try and experience the fun you have been missing!

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