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The Topeka Capitol Journal-CJ online

Girls take to grabblin'

These 'wild girls' enjoy wrestlin' with big cats

By Marc Murrell
Special to The Capital-Journal
Published Sunday, July 08, 2007

Imagine wading through waist or even chest-deep water, feeling with your feet and hands as you go. You encounter a hole and your heart rate quickens. You take a deep breath and submerge to the entrance of the hole, sticking your hand slowly inside. All of a sudden and without warning, a huge catfish chomps on your hand and the battle is on. Sound like fun? Depending on your perspective it could be, but most people have another word for it.

"Different areas of the country call it different things," said Fostana Jenkins of the typical terminology of fishing with your hands. "Some call it noodling, tickling, hogging, grabbling, but the number one thing is probably CRAZY!      

Tennessee resident Fostana Jenkins proudly displays one of the monstrous flatheads she caught while grabbling on one of the Tennessee River system lakes.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of grabbling for Fostana Jenkins, left, is introducing new people to the sport. She poses with newbie Cristi Snyder and a nice flathead they wrestled from a hole.

Grabbling isn't just a guy thing, and you can see how in the DVD, "Girls Gone Grabblin'."
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Jenkins, along with her husband, Marty, reside in Etowah, Tenn. Both are well known in the hand-fishing world and they even have their own Web site (www.catfishgrabblers.com). They produced a DVD several years ago on the technique and Fostana and several dozen other females recently produced their own DVD, "Girls Gone Grabblin'." It has proved popular and has been featured in Outdoor Life, ABC's World News Tonight, Country Music Television and will appear this month on CBS's Early Show.

Fostana's first experience with grabblin' was when she started dating Marty.

"He's been doing it for over 20 years now and I just started going with him and blocking the hole," Fostana said of her introduction to hand fishing. "I actually had a fish come out and grab me and it was a 35-pound blue cat.

"Once you catch that first big fish with all the excitement and catching something with your bare hands, you're hooked and it keeps you going back."

The husband-and-wife duo probably go grabblin' 60 out of the 80 days when it's good.

"That can be pretty rough on your hands if you don't wear gloves so we do wear gloves," Fostana said of the catfish's sandpaper-like teeth.

People are attracted to the sport for many reasons and Fostana likes many aspects of it. However, one sticks out more than others.

"I like taking people that have never been before," Fostana said. "It's neat to take someone and have them run their hand in there and have a fish bite them, and seeing the expression on their face is priceless."

The couple typically fish during the summer months when the water warms up and catfish channel, blue and mostly flatheads look for a cavity to nest in. They fish lakes on the Tennessee River system.

"We don't do a lot of mud banks because that keeps us away from turtles and other creatures," Fostana said with a laugh. "We do a lot of rocky areas and some boat ramps, any place where it's sheltered and it goes down to soft dirt where they can make a bed."

Once they find a hole, they'll run their hand in the hole and they can often tell if it's occupied or not. Sticks and debris in the hole likely means nobody's home, but a smooth, clean hole often means they're in business.

"If you find a hole you put your feet in it to keep the fish from coming out," Fostana said, "and then you have to hold your breath, go down and run your hand in the hole to try to find the fish and if you don't get him the first time, as soon as your hands come out, you put your feet back in the hole to keep the fish from coming out. If the fish is close enough, we'll grab hold of their lower jaw, or sometimes they just come out and bite you."

If the fish isn't close to the hole's entrance, they use a stick with a hook to ease the fish into position so they can grab him (sticks aren't legal in Kansas).

"You pretty much have to do it all by feel," Fostana said. "You have to figure out where their head is to pull them to you so you can grab them, because in some of the areas we do they might be eight feet back in a hole."

The Jenkinses do practice catch and release, although they keep some during the summer to eat. Tennessee regulations allow them to keep one fish per person, per day.

There really isn't any time of day better than another, Fostana said, and it makes sense.

"You're usually under water and you can't see what you're doing anyway," Fostana said of day versus night. "It's easier during the day just so you can see what you're doing when you're not under water."

Fostana said there seems to be an increase in the interest of hand fishing in recent years across the country, although it's nothing new.

"The Indians practiced it and that's one of the first places where people saw it done," Fostana said. "And during the depression, a lot of people used it to put food on their table and it's something that's been around a long time."

The response to their "Girls Gone Grabblin'" DVD has been great, Fostana said. They've introduced more than 60 women to the sport and plans are underway for a sequel.

Some women worried about being able to handle a fish that was mad as hell weighing more than 50 pounds.

"There will usually be two of us and one of us will grab its mouth and the other will grab its body to keep it from rolling and twisting and that's how we can hold the bigger fish," Fostana said. "Or, we'll actually wrap our legs around it because once you pull it out of the hole they'll start doing a big crocodile roll and I don't care how big you are, or how strong you are, it's really hard to hold them."

Noodling is fun and not for the faint of heart. The couple enjoys their time on the water sharing with friends and those new to the sport.

"We've had a lot of fun making the videos and taking new people, and that's probably what Marty and I enjoy most is teaching them the art and tradition of grabbling," Fostana said.

Marc Murrell can be reached at mmoutdoors@cox.net.


The first-ever handfishing season in Kansas opened June 15 and will run through the end of August. Two locations are open to handfishing:

1) the Arkansas River from the John Mack Bridge on Broadway Street in Wichita downstream to the Kansas-Oklahoma border and,

2) the Kansas River from its origin downstream to its confluence with the Missouri River.

Flathead catfish are the only species legal to take and a special permit is required ($27.15), in addition to a regular fishing license. For more information, see www.kdwp.state.ks.us.

Marc Murrell












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