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Hand Grabbin'
by K. G. Sims

In Mississippi, we have many types of fishing. Why, there are bream, bass, crappie, perch and others to keep it interesting. However, Mr. Catfish is king. We use poles, rod and reels, jugs and trot lines to capture this hungry fellow. We even raise them in a pond and harvest them, just like any other agricultural product. But the most interesting method I ever saw was hand grabbin’.

Anyone raised in the Mississippi Delta has been fishing at least once. As a boy, I had pretty much fished every way you could, even a little not so legal hoop net fishing. But I had never heard of grabbing them out of the water. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I was made aware of the sport before I reached thirty years of age. The manufacturing plant, where I was employed as an engineer, had relocated an executive from Marianna, Arkansas. He and his son were avid hand-grabbers. He told me stories of finding the big, hollow logs and felled trees in three to five feet of water and pulling out catfish as large as 30 pounds. He would describe reaching into the water, blindly, and rubbing the catfish’s nose until he opened up and grabbed his arm. Then he would begin hauling the big fish up onto the lake bank. He had the scars to prove it!

This was exciting stuff, but I was still in the mode of trying to determine what kind of bait I would throw at the big catfish on my rod and reel after I found he was down there. I was having a difficult time with the picture of my arm in the mouth of a fish in the water. That was his element; mine was land. But I knew that sooner or later I would have to try it.

'Sooner' was an early April day on a reasonably clear lake in Carroll County. Much to my dismay, we quickly found a huge, hollowed out tree trunk about one foot below the surface in a small cove. The water was still brisk, but I plunged in anyway. Besides, I think I was looking for an excuse to shake a little. My partner that day was an old Mississippi boy too named Bilbo. Bilbo had become a seasoned grabber, as he hung out with the family from Arkansas on the weekends. He was here to nursemaid me through my first experience. I was thankful that the cool weather we had experienced was keeping the water moccasins away. I had enough to worry about without their presence.

I approached the trunk and surveyed the distance to the bank. I looked back to see Bilbo grinning from ear to ear. The bank was about five feet away, and I was consoled that at least one man in history had walked on water much farther than that. I found the trunk opening and began to insert my hand, waving it back and forth. I felt a brush of something and partially wet myself. Since I was wet to my waist, who would know? As I continued to put my hand in farther, I felt something rounded and smooth. Mr. Catfish! Almost obligingly, he turned sideways and allowed me to feel his length and girth. I shouted to Bilbo that I was sure this one was about 25 pounds. He laughed and told me that it was more likely to be about 35 pounds, since my hands were cold and a little numb and that would prohibit a good feel. That did not make me feel any better.

It was pretty obvious that this fish was not going anywhere. He was bedded up for the day. I raised up and ran over the instructions again with Bilbo. Of course, I voiced the thought of leaving well enough alone and satisfying myself that I had petted the big fellow and still had all my digits and limbs; however, Bilbo made some disparaging remarks about my manly, who was acting like a turtle and hiding. Not that I could blame him -- we all know about worms and fish. So, I turned to reach for my quarry again. I found him in the same place and began to stroke his head and reach around his mouth.

The next thing I knew, he had opened his mouth and my arm was in, up to six inches above my wrist. I called to Bilbo and told him, and he was saying something about the gills, when I felt the vise close on my arm. Mr. Catfish began shaking his head, slowly at first, then violently. I closed my hand on something in the big fellow’s throat and began to try to pull him out, my 215 pounds seeming more a disadvantage in this struggle. I slipped on the muddy bottom and went under the water -- just where I did not want to be. Regaining my footing, I stood and Bilbo was behind me, pulling me toward the bank. The fish was trying to roll and his cartilaginous teeth were making hamburger out of my arm. Finally, we fell onto the bank, with the big fish still flopping. Bilbo put his foot on the fish’s gills and pressed down and his mouth came open and my arm was released.

“Man, this fish is 40 pounds, at least,” Bilbo shouted.

All I could do was survey the nice lacerated ring around my arm and the remainder of some fish matter in my clenched fist. My shoulder ached and I was pretty sure it was out of the socket. But, after Bilbo retrieved a flask of sour mash from the anchored boat and we had a few sips, my arm did not hurt as bad and my shoulder seemed okay. The big fish was now more sedate, with his saucer-sized gills opening and closing. Bilbo poured some of the sour mash over the ring of flesh on my arm, shaking his head and laughing.

Feeling proud and satisfied, I smiled and asked, “You ever caught one that big?”

“Hell, no!" he shouted. "We never mess with one that big. You could have drowned!”

Obviously, I missed some instruction about measuring the size of the head to determine whether you proceed or get the Hell out of Dodge. As there was not a limb or other weapon, except the flask of sour mash, to use to beat Bilbo senseless, I suffered to let him off with some of my rarely used sailor talk.

After my tirade and his chuckling, he asked, “You gonna clean that thing?”

Good thing I am not Superman, because the heat from my stare would have burned Bilbo to a crisp.

“You know, that big, they don’t always eat too well,” he continued.

I knew what was coming, so I stood, grabbed the big fish by the tail and started toward the water. Bilbo shouted for me to hold on, as he grabbed a small instamatic camera from the boat and took the picture.

“You gotta have evidence,” he said.

I released the fish and watched him wallow, as he regained his senses and swam away. As Bilbo reloaded his dip of Skoal, we got in the boat and went back to the ramp.

I went to work on Monday with an arm that looked as if it had been tangled in a barbed-wire fence. Thanks to a fast photo shop, I had a picture to show off after lunch. This was my once and only hand grabbin’ experience. Why, you may ask? The revelation is that it is not the fish that gets grabbed -- it is the fisher.


K. G. Sims was transplanted from Mississippi to Illinois and then to Missouri. He does his best to spread "Southern-ness" around the area. Be sure to visit his web site at SouthernSpeak.com and watch for his new book, now released, titled NORTHWEST TRAIN.

Read many more great stories listed on our USADS Articles pages.


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