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Girls Gone Grabbling
by Richard Simms
posted June 13, 2004

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Photo by Richard Simms
(l-r) Priscilla Simms and sister Tiffany with a pair of flathead catfish, each in the 40-pound class, grabbled from Watts Bar Lake.
With the same frustration every fishermen has ever felt or expressed, Priscilla Simms screamed, "I had him and he got away!"

One big difference however. Priscilla didn't have a fish at the end of a hook and line. She'd grabbed him with her bare hands, four feet under water from beneath a rock slab. Before she reached the surface however, the catfish rolled like an alligator and twisted himself from her grip.

No matter. Priscilla had joined a very elite group of people who call themselves Catfish Grabblers.

These are the men, and a few women, who enjoy the art of seeking out spawning catfish with their bare hands.

In late May and June, monster flatheads and blue cats seek out shallow underwater caves where they sweep out beds and lay their eggs. Marty Jenkins, his wife Fostana, and Harold Eaton have discovered that old concrete boat ramps make perfect artificial bedding structures for the big cats.

I made my first trip with them last summer and captured the adventure on videotape. Back home one of my daughters watched one night and said, "I'd like to try that."

"Really," I asked, not really believing it.

"Yea, it kind of looks like fun," she insisted.

Now when you tell most people about diving underwater, poking your hand underneath a rock and hoping a 40-pound catfish will bite you -- they'll describe it as anything but fun.

My daughters are apparently on a different wavelength. I'm not sure if I should be proud, or worried.

But the trip was arranged far in advance, and they had lots of time to fret about it. When it came time to get in the water and dive however, there was little hesitation.

The Jenkins' are good teachers, but nothing replaces 20-years of experience. Priscilla's first experience was with a small catfish. Most holes these grabblers explore have an opening just two or three feet wide, but underneath the concrete the cave might be ten feet wide where the huge cats have cleared out plenty of bedding room.

The Jenkins use a dull hook to probe the underwater cave, herding or coaxing the fish into arm's length…. those fish that don't come after you, that is.

Harold Eaton was providing a "coaxing" lesson when he managed to get the first big flathead to the opening. Those of us standing on the boat ramp videotaping could feel the vibrations as the huge catfish struggled. We could hear Tiffany scream underwater. On the videotape I can time it precisely. They were gone for exactly 27 seconds, but when they surfaced, Harold and Priscilla had the head and Tiffany's face was covered by a flopping fish tail screaming, "we got him, we got him!"

They struggled to shore and after a brief photo session, this flathead was released, as are all the fish these grabblers grabble.

The girls and I wanted to learn to do our own probing and coaxing. We indeed could feel the catfish's body. And often the fish would snap at the pole. Amazingly, they usually refuse to try and make a mad dash for open water, choosing to protect their bed at all costs.

Note the word "usually." On one occasion Tiffany's body jerked like someone had set the hook on her. With a shocked expression she said, "he got out."

A big catfish had rushed her like a mean linebacker on a blitz, and indeed, broke through the line. Had there been one, he would have sacked the quarterback.

But neither the girls nor I could ever could master the "coaxing the fish into arms reach" part, at least not before our lungs failed.

Marty Jenkins on the other hand, has the lungs of a snapping turtle and the deft touch of a surgeon. Probing the dark, unseen reaches of each cave, he could find the fish's jaw and pull the beast to the opening that is usually just large enough for two people to reach into. That's when he'd let his partners take over, grabbing the huge fish's lower jaw, preferably with a strong 2-handed grip and head for the surface.

"I got it," screamed Priscilla this time. Her head emerged from the water alongside a huge catfish head. I swear I think the catfish head was bigger. As Marty had instructed, she had the fish wrapped up in a bearhug, her legs wrapped around it's tail to prevent further flopping. Which meant she had no appendages left to swim with. Fostana and Tiffany rushed to her aid and the mass of writhing fish and grabblers made their way to shore, laughter ringing from shore-to-shore.

Earlier in the day, Marty had come to the surface with another big cat. Tiffany was there to help, we thought. Marty's head just barely bobbed above the water where he calmly spoke the word, "help."

To which Tiffany stared blankly and responded, "help with what?"

About that time Marty's head moved magically toward deep water, sort of like that scene in Jaws when the shark grabs the girl. We all realized a big catfish was swimming off with Marty and everybody grabbed him at once.

Again the laughter and screams of delight. No fear, no trepidation… only fun for Girls Gone Grabblin'.

To view Pictures and video links for this article please click the link below and you will be directed to Richard Simms article at Chattanooga.com: 
Girls Gone Grabblin'
Click here to view the article Grabble This! written by Richard Simms. 












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