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Knoxville News Sentinel Article


BY BOB HODGE    hodge@knews.com

KINGSTON - Anyone who has ever grabbled catfish knows there's more than one way for a cat to skin you up.  The really big fish can clamp down on your fingers and rip the hide off them with mouths that feel like a combination of sandpaper and Velcro.  They have jaws powerful enough to pull you into their hole and scrape the skin off your arm from wrist to shoulder.  They can start twisting and rolling, tossing a grabbler around on the lakebed and leaving him or her with cuts and bruises from head to toe.  But for some people who like to catch big catfish, grabbling is hands down better than using a rod and reel.  The only trouble is the hands are down a hole that the catfish doesn't necessarily want to leave.

Late May to July is catfish grabbling season in East Tennessee.  The catfish are literally holed up under rocks, logs, rip-rap and boats ramps.  Finding the holes is the easy part.  Getting the fish out of them is a bit trickier.  "You never know how long one is going to take," Robby Davis said.  "Sometimes you find a hole and reach in it and pull the fish right out.  Other times it takes a lot longer.  It can wear you down."

Along with husband and wife grabblers Marty and Fostana Jenkins, Davis is one of the founders of the Internet site www.catfishgrabblers.com.  At the site they post pictures and sell hats and T-shirts embalzoned with the "Catfish Grabblers" logo.  They also sell a 60-minute video of some of the highlights they've had during more than two decades of grabbling.  The $14.99 video will either make you want to rush to the nearest lake and stick your hand in a catfish hole, or it will make you want to rush to the phone and call the Jenkinses and Davis to recommend a good therapist.

"We take a lot of people and the reaction is about 50-50 between those that like and those that don't want to do it anymore," Marty Jenkins said."it's not for everybody."  Also called hogging, noodling, tickling, doggin and stumping, grabbling was practiced by the Indians long before white men showed up in North America.  Reportedly it became very popular in the South during the Depression because it was a fast way to put lots of meat on the table.

Grabbling is limited to the late spring and early summer because that's when catfish are spawning.  Females find a sheltered location to lay eggs--the holes in rocks under logs, boat ramps, etc.--then males move in to guard the nest, keeping the eggs areated and predators out.  The male stays on the job until fry leave the nest, eating and moving very little.  Like a guy who has to watch the kids and miss a meal, the catfish gets a bad temper and strikes at anything that comes near the nest....that includes the hands of a grabbler.

"That first time you run your hand in a hole and it gets hit, that either makes or breaks you," Jenkins said. Marty Jenkins and Davis started grabbling in 1982 and have been at it ever since.  For years they grabbled smaller catfish for the frying pan, then began moving up to the "trophy" cats about seven years ago for more of a challenge.  These days the spend most of their time trophy hunting, releasing the catfish back into the holes from where they were grabbled.

The biggest fish they've taken was a 49-pound flathead from Watts Bar Lake.  "The first time we went Marty put his hand in a hole and was hit," Davis said.  "He said, 'I don't know what it was, but I'm not sticking my hand back in there.'  I got the fish and we ended up grabbling for the next month.  We haven't missed a year since."

Fostana Jenkins began grabbling not long after she started dating Marty, but it took a few trips before she was ready to take the plunge.  In fact, she grabbled her first fish in self defense.  Not yet ready to stick her hands in a hole and have them bit, she helped her husband-to-be and Davis by being the sentry.  Like a house with a back door, some catfish nests have more than one way in and out, so she was blocking a potential exit.  " I was guarding a hole and the fish just ran out into me," she said.  "It about ran me over."  Marty Jenkins was impressed by how his wife handled the situation.  "The fish came out and she just tackled it," he said.  "She had a hard time controlling it and just sort of shoved it back up the hole."

The trio opened the 2003 grabbling season last week, pulling up eight catfish in a span of four hours.  They bypassed most of the holes where the three and four-pound fish hang out in favor of the ones holding 30-and 40-pounders.  At their second stop they pulled out three flathead catfish that weighed in at more than more than 100 pounds.  The biggest tipped the scales at 44 pounds and the other two 30 and 33.  Davis took nearly 90 minutes to work the biggest one out of its hole.  Using custom-made steel rods with dull hooks on the end, he was able to maneuver the fish towards the front of the hole and finally get a grip on its lower jaw.

In the meantime, Marty and Fostana had put two on the stringer and had another make a backdoor exit.  "Sometimes they'll just lie in the backs of the holes and aren't very agressive and those can be the toughest fish,"  Marty Jenkins said.  "Sometime the fish that are the most aggressive are easier."  But sometimes a catfish can be overly aggressive.  Over the years a few grabblers have lost their lives when they were trapped under water.  Marty Jenkins had a close call a few years ago on Watts Bar when a catfish didn't just bite his fingers, but swallowed his arm nearly up to the elbow.

"The first time the fish bit it took my glove off,"  Marty Jenkins said.  "I went back down again and this time it clamped down on my arm and pulled me back into its hole."  Jenkins can hold his breath about twice as long as the average person, but after a while he began to run out of air. "I was beginning to hurt," he said.  "When I got away from the fish it looked like I had a rash going all the way up my arm.  But that's the only close call we've had."  He finally escaped the hole by draggin the fish up to the surface with him.

These days the danger is somewhat mitigated by always having a member of the group looking out for potential problems.  There were no close calls this day.  At the next stop, in a slough off the main cannel, the holes around a boat ramp were full of blue cats.  In about 45 minutes of grabbling three blues were pulled out of the water, the largest tipping the scales at just more than 40 pounds.  Of the seven catfish caught, only one weighed less than 30 pounds.

"That's a good day," said Davis, who had abrasions from his hand up to his shoulder.  "Anytime you can get this many fish over 30 pounds, it's a good day."  And going home with most of your skin makes it even better.












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