GIRLS GONE GRABBLIN’
WRITTEN BY: Joella Bates
Marty Jenkins broke a slim cigar in half and placed one half in his mouth. “Calms my nerves,” Marty said as he rolled the cigar around in his mouth. “This may be a two cigar day girls,” he added as he stashed the other half back in the water proof wrapping. “Are you a drinking girl?” his question pierced me to the soul. “Do we need to go to the store and get you something before we go out?” he teased me. His wife, Fostana, and I laughed and took our seats near the back of the bass boat.
“No, no, I will be just fine,” I replied. I wandered if my crystal blue eyes reflected the fear contained in my soul even though my eyes were shaded by polarized Bass Pro sunglasses. “I’m crazy enough without drinking anything and if I have a good time, I sure want to know what I did and who I was with,” I continued chuckling.
As we putted through the no wake zone, I confessed to my gracious hosts, “I have always considered myself quiet brave. After all, I am the first lady to successfully take on Black Death, Africa’s Cape buffalo, with only a bow and arrow. I stared him eyeball to eyeball at a mere 22 yards before launching my arrow frontally into his heart. And, I have taken on mountain lion, alligators, wild boar, bears, 3 Asian Water Buffalos, American bison, and many other species with my bow and arrows. Despite a lifetime of extreme outdoor adventures, the idea of grabblin’ for catfish is very intimidating even for me. But, challenge is my middle name, so I just have to give it a try.”
In February, my friend David Pittman had introduced me to fellow Tennesseans, Fostana and Marty Jenkins of Catfish Grabblers, at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas. When he told me that Fostana grabbled for catfish, I am sure my eyes got as big as saucers.
“What!” I exclaimed. “You have got to be kidding. That’s not for me.” Now, I have done some crazy things, but the thought of wading in the water, reaching in holes, and grabbing a catfish with my bare hands was too crazy for my comprehension.
Fostana gave me an autographed copy of their DVD “Girls Gone Grabblin’ and an invitation to join them sometime. I told her I would be glad to share some archery shooting tips with her, but I was not sure about grabblin’ catfish. And prior to June 21st, I still had reservations, but when I started writing for Catfish Now magazine, I thought you would enjoy the adventure. So, readers, I did this for you.
When Marty stopped near a 10-foot high vertical mud bank lined with dead trees hanging into the water, my mind began running a million miles a minute. Marty pulled out a digital camera, so I got mine too. As he allowed the boat to swing into position, so as not to shadow our faces, I kept inspecting the shoreline and the trees for snakes. I could just imagine a big water snake wrapping itself around me and making me hurt myself. “Look, there is a log that looks like a boa,” I said as I pointed to a 15-foot semi-submerged log that closely resembled the exotic reptile.
“Are you sure it is not a snake?” Marty questioned then chuckled.
“I’m sure,” I responded as I looked at Fostana. “How long have you been doing this?” I asked her.
“Six years,” she said. “Marty is the pro. He has been doing this for 20 years.”
“Twenty years! How long have you all been married?” I ask.
“Less than that,” she responded with deep dimples and sparkling eyes peering from beneath her ball cap.
“Was you grabblin’ a prerequisite --- before the marriage proposal?” I jokingly asked Marty.
“No, but it should have been,” Marty replied.
I turned to Marty and said, “You better hold on to her because I don’t know many women that would let you talk them into doing this.”
Despite the conversation, my insides churned. “You know how the fear of the unknown is always worse than reality,” I commented. “Well, I hope that is the case with this. I am not sure of all this. Ya’ll are going to have to help me out? I don’t have a clue what to do. And, I hate to say it, but I’m not at all sure that I want to get in there,” I said as I pointed to the water along the tree-lined bank.
Marty and Fostana rolled laughing.
“That looks awfully snaky to me,” I replied. “Aren’t you afraid that you will get caught up in those tree limbs? And besides that, that looks like a good place to find a snapping turtle. Shoot! I don’t want to lose my trigger finger to no turtle.”
“No, no, we are not going in here,” Marty replied. Marty is a soft spoken yet very serious looking man who possessed a glint of mischief that radiated from his eyes. “Seriously now, you did watch the DVD, didn’t you?” he questioned.
“Well, actually, no,” I responded. “It was packed up in my SHOT Show box that I took to Indiana, and until this trip, I did not have it on me.”
“Get out of my boat!” Marty joked. “Well, if you had watched it, you would see that we concentrate on rock banks and boat ramps.”
“Ok!” “Why is that?” I asked.
“You, being a biologist and all, should know that catfish nest in cavities this time of year. They go back in holes in the rocks and under boat ramps where the bottom is sandy. They do not like silty areas or areas with leaves and sticks. If their holes get littered with debris, they clean it out. You don’t find catfish nesting in trashed holes,” Marty acknowledged.
“Makes sense to me,” I said. “I just have to ask, “What about turtles and snakes?” “Have you ever reached back in one of these rocky holes and encountered a snake or turtle?” I questioned.
“Never in my 20 years of grabblin’ catfish, have I ever found a turtle or snake in the nest holes in rocks or under a concrete boat ramp. I have been told that turtles don’t get under the rocks. They could get their shell lodged in the rocks and become trapped. And as for snakes, well, they need to come up for oxygen. These holes are totally under water. Snakes can’t breathe under water.”
“Ok, well, that makes me feel some better.” I said.
Marty took his photos then I took some of them. Marty said, “Girls, we are wasting time. Now get set. We are going to travel a ways to a shallow ramp that we will use to break you in.” He cranked the engine and began to mildly throttle down then powered the boat on plane.
“Weeeee,” I squealed and threw my arms in the air. “Enough with the anticipation, let’s do this,” I thought to myself. Fake it till you make it, I once heard on a cassette tape from my archery coach, Dan Hart. It was time for me to fake being brave until I became brave.
We reached the boat ramp and Fostana threw out the anchor. Marty got the video camera and jumped in the water. I loaded a new roll of film then handed him my 35 mm camera. “Show time, girls!” he said. Fostana fitted me with gloves that would protect my hands from the plates of razor sharp teeth inside the catfish’s mouths.
“Sissy! Sissy!” Marty teased. “Real genuine grabblers don’t use gloves,” he continued.
“I’m not there yet,” I replied.
“Make sure you can close your hands completely and make a tight fist,” Fostana implored as she helped me select gloves that fit properly. “You will put your fingers totally inside his mouth and hold on with all your might; otherwise, you will loose your grip. Now, the catfish will not be happy when we stick our hands in there. It may hit your hand or it may grab your hand and bite it in its’ mouth. He may really latch on and try to pull you back in the hole, so be prepared. They can be really strong, so you have to grip hard and keep holding on tight. The catfish is likely to roll one or two times when we pull it out of the hole or water, so be ready to stop the roll. I would be fibbing to you if I told you that you could not get hurt, but I have only gotten scrapes from the rocks and bite marks when the fish pulled off my glove and I continued to go after it.” With my hands gloved, I jump in the waist-deep water.
As Fostana and I walk toward the boat ramp Marty added, “In my 20 years of doing this, I have only broken one finger because the catfish rolled when I didn’t have a good grip, and another time, a really big catfish twisted my wrist on a roll. If you feel Fostana flailing around, help her. Run your hand down her arm and grab the fish in the mouth, and help her bring it in. If her head is above water, you don’t have to be in a hurry to pull the fish out. Make sure you have a good solid grip, preferably with both hands then ya’ll get the fish out. When it comes out of the water, it will probably roll to get away. Hold on. When ya’ll can, either walk with him or throw him up on the bank. Fostana, do you remember where the hole is?”
Fostana replied, “Yes.” She instructed, “Joella lie down and block the holes with your body. Use whatever you have, but don’t let the fish get out. Bend you hands keep your palms near the bottom and your fingers extended upward, so you can grab it in the mouth if it bumps you. If you can’t grab its’ mouth, knock it back into the hole. I laid down in the knee-deep water and blocked the openings. Fostana stuck first one arm then the other into the opening under the concrete boat ramp. No fish announced its’ presence. Next, Fostana reached into the opening with a 15-inch steel rod with a blunt hook on the end. She would use the rod as an extension of her arm and the hook to gently coax the fish toward her if a catfish was holding further back in the hole than her arm could reach. “You will hear a thump when I disturb the fish, if he is in here. “No one is home,” she stated after a careful inspection.
Marty said, “Let’s load and move.”
This time we unloaded at a steep ramp and swam under the boat dock. We pushed the paddleboat away form the dock frame to provide more room for maneuvering. Fostana said, “Let me dive down first and see if we have a fish. If I grab your leg, come down and help me. Run your hand down my arm and into the fish’s mouth or help me to the surface if I am flailing around.” I had not done any swimming this year. I dreaded the thought of diving down to get the catfish, so I secretly hoped that there would not be a fish. I dunked my head under the water and quickly resurfaced and gasped for a breath. “Please, Lord, don’t let me suck in water or get stuck down there,” I prayed.
“Joella,” Fostana said.
“Ok, I will,” I said when Fostana elicited my attention back to the reality at hand. I waited. She checked first with her hand before resurfacing for a breath and the short rod. After nearly 30 seconds, she surfaced, this time, she took a breath and grabbed a rod attached to a three-foot bamboo pole. We heard a rumble of thunder as the north sky darkened. I hate lightening, so I became distracted by the impending storm. I was grateful when Marty said, “Check one more time to be sure and let’s get out of here. If that storm hits, I want to be under the marina shelter.” I dove down to the bottom just to make sure I could get down far enough if I was needed. We swam to the boat and climbed aboard.
“I have one more place that I want you to check just down the bank,” he told Fostana. “Take the short rod and check the shallow hole. If you don’t feel him quick, we better go.” She jumped in and swam to the ramp. “I’m afraid I still have a lot to learn about this boat. I had checked the fuel gauge when I launched the boat, but I think it falls quickly when it gets below half a tank. Girls, we have got to have gas before we run to our honey holes. I have been saving some places that are usually very productive, just for you, Joella,” Marty finished before shifting the boat into gear.
Just as we pulled into the gas pump at the dock, the winds gusted. The sky became increasingly darker with clouds rapidly moving in our direction. “I grabbed my keys and ran to my van to close the side windows. Marty pickup Fostana and me up at the marina office for a quick check of a ramp in the harbor before the rain began.
We jumped from the boat and hurried to the ramp. I stretched out the full length of my body. This time I blocked the shallowest end by the bank with my feet. Fostana reached the short rod under the ramp. This time, the catfish announced his presence with an explosive thump. Now, I knew what they had been talking about. Marty sat on the ramp with the video camera when the catfish thumped the ramp directly under him. My adrenaline surged. After wandering if grabblin’ was like snipe hunting, I was relieved to finally know that we had a catfish located. A loud rumble of thunder startled me. “Are you sure this is smart?” I thought, but did not say out loud. I was so caught up in the moment that I desperately wanted to continue the hunt. Fostana reached under the ramp with the medium length rod in hopes of being able to drag the fish within arm’s reach, but a loud clap of thunder followed by a flash of lightening convinced us differently. “Come on girls. We had better go. I don’t like this lightening,” Marty said as the wall of rain pelted us with huge rain drops.
Dampened by the rain, we wrapped in beach towels and waited out the storm. For the next two hours, we sat safely under the shelter in a boat slip at the marina. We picnicked on Subway sandwiches, colas, tomato juice, Gatorade, and Mars candy bars. Both Fostana and Marty are employed by the Mars Corporation in Cleveland, TN.
Finally, the rain slacked and the storm moved to our south east. Fostana and I wrapped in dry beach towels and sat in the bottom of the boat for the trip to their honey holes. We boated up the river for about 10 minutes to a beautiful cove on the eastern side of the reservoir. “This is where we have grabbled our best catfish,” Marty said as we bailed into the water. “Fostana, you girls have got to block that hole as soon as you get there,” Marty stressed. Fostana positioned herself near the concrete block wall at the head of the ramp. I laid down with my feet blocking the smaller holes in the deeper water. Thump! Thump! The catfish exploded when Fostana reached the rod into the hole.
Fostana said, “There are two fish in hear.” From the loudness of the thump and the vibration we felt through the ramp, we suspected big fish were waiting. After nearly 30 minutes, Fostana pulled the catfish close enough to grab it in the mouth. Her body trembled as the fish tugged her back into the hole. I pulled the rod and unfortunately my wrong reaction caused the fish to break loose. Marty saw a small snake sticking its’ head above the grass at the edge of the dock. He took the short rod and spooked the snake from some debris. The two-foot queen snake fell into the water a mere 12 feet from us; a few minutes later, I watched a second snake fall from the dock. With a new reason to speed up our capture of the big catfish, Fostana latched onto a catfish. I ran my hand down her arm to the fish’s mouth. This time, I grabbed onto the bottom lip with one hand then the other. With all my hand strength, I held on. We pulled it from the hole as it twisted and flailed attempting to achieve freedom, but we gals scrambled up the slick ramp onto the shore. Jubilantly, we celebrated grabblin’ our first flathead catfish, a behemoth 38-pounder.
We wasted little time resuming our positions blocking the holes, since we knew there was another catfish under the ramp. Fostana had dropped the long cane pole when she had grabbed the previous fish, but we could not see it now. Becoming braver, I ran my arm under the ramp into the hole and felt the pole floating. Having never attempted grabblin’ before, this whole process was new to me. I believed I felt the hook slide down the catfish’s side. I could feel what I thought was the gumminess of the eggs on the substrate way back in the hole. Not wanting to damage the nest, I passed the pole to Fostana to perform her magic. After 45 minutes, Fostana continued to search with many almosts, but not close enoughs.
Marty convinced me to move to the opposite side of the ramp to another hole; the same hole near the dock where he had played with the snake. With little space for maneuvering, I stretched my legs toward the deeper end of the ramp. I reached the tip of the short rod into the hole and instantly a catfish grabbed on and shook the rod violently. I heard the familiar thump, but this time the fish was attached to the rod in my hand. I gasped in surprise and instinctively jerked my hand back away from perceived potential danger. “Reach in there gal. Take one hand, run it down the rod, and grab onto the bottom lip,” Marty said.
I did as he coached. The catfish latched onto my whole hand, with more pressure than I could have imagined. Marty again coached me, “Now, reach your other hand down there too.”
“Ok!” I exclaimed as my faced turned beet red from me holding my breath. “I’ve got him. He is big. Really big!! The catfish seemed to increase his bite on both my hands. I could feel additional space besides what was necessary for my hands. Come help me!
Marty said, “You can do it by yourself, or Fostana can come over if you want her help. Without any hesitation, I said, “Please come help me.” I wanted the catfish for photos and I did not feel that it was necessary to pull this fish out by myself. Fostana joined me. She ran her hand down my arm into the muddied water and wrapped her arms around the fish. On three, we positioned our feet where we could stand; on two, we tightened our grip on the fish. Marty reminded me that the dock was just above my head and to be careful when I stood. On one, we stood raising the catfish from the water. He twisted, and rolled, with more power than I realized was possible, the catfish manhandled the two of us. The force pulled my left hand from his mouth. Fostana kept her arms wrapped and I held on with all my might.
“Help,” Fostana yelled as she held the blue catfish in her arms. I grabbed with my left arm and flung the blue onto the shore. Fostana yelled, “You got a blue catfish. Now, I know why your face got so red; you just caught the meanest fish in the lake. Blue cats are bad boys. I can’t believe your first grabbled catfish is a blue cat.
I jumped and gasped with excitement. “Yeehaw,” I yelled as I grabbed Fostana and bear-hugged (catfish-hugged) her. “I am a catfish grabbler!” I exclaimed as I danced and retold the events in celebration. Marty slapped my hand with a high-five, but I grabbed him with a catfish-hug too. Marty had captured all the events on video --- up close and personal. We weighed my catfish in at 28 pounds then Marty placed him on a boat-anchor rope stringer.
Fostana and I resumed the battle with the fish in the first hole. After 15 to 20 minutes more, Marty traded places with Fostana. I blocked for him for a while, but with daylight quickly fading, he sent me to the boat to prepare my camera for photos. While I was in the boat, Marty grabbed onto the catfish. He called me to help him, but in the process of trying to get my hands in the fish’s mouth, Marty relaxed his grip. The catfish pulled loose. Marty was frustrated, but within minutes, he again had the catfish in his grasp. This time, I moved into place with both hands clasped onto his bottom lip. We raised the flathead catfish from the water and walked him to the shore. We quickly weighed him at 35 pounds, took photos, and retrieved the other catfish from the stringer. Fostana, Marty, and I posed for photos.
Fostana and I swam the big flathead catfish in the cleaner water until they regained their strength. We returned the pair to the safety and protection of their hole to resume guard duty of their fertilized eggs.
We returned to the boat for the trip back to the marina. I’m a changed girl. Once again, I have met the challenge of the unknown, and again, I came out the victor. Grabblin’ and catching the catfish was a significant achievement. But the great accomplishment came about as the personal growth and the self-confidence that the experience brought me. This gal, once apprehensive about the thought of grabblin’ for catfish, is the newest member of the GIRLS GONE GRABBLIN’ --- CATFISH GRABBLIN’ Fraternity. Thanks, Marty and Fostana for providing me a “Livin’ on the Edge Adventure.
For more information on catfish grabblin’ check out the Jenkins’ website www.girlsgonegrabblin.com and make sure you purchase the Catfish Grabblin’ and Girls Gone Grabblin’ DVDs, so you will be better prepared for your first grabblin’ experience. Also available on the web site are t-shirts, necklaces, and ball caps. Keep watching for the new GIRLS GONE GRABBLIN’’ II DVD that will be coming soon.