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Learning to grabble

TWRA official, sons try their hands at pulling up catfish

by Richard Simms corresspondent

Link to pictures taken on this grabbling or noodling adventure chattanoogan.com

"He's in my pants!"  14 year old Taylor Wilson yelled.

That's not a place you want an 18-pound catfish to be.  Taylor had little choice, however, as the fish battled to escape.  Taylor and his father, Bobby Wilson, were in its way.

Bobby Wilson is a trained biologist and the assistant cheif of fisheries for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, clearly an expert in his field.

Marty Jenkins is not professionally trained, but he has produced two unique video productions about catfish grabbling, parts of which have aired on ABC's "World News Tonight."  Jenkins is an expert as well.

You could call last Saturday's grabbling foray on Watts Bar Lake a "meeting of the minds."

Although he knows as much about bass population dynamics, age and growth data and creel surveys as anybody in the state, Bobby Wilson previously had no firsthand exposure to the ancient art of catfish grabbling.

"Its's pretty unusual," he said.  "I've seen video, heard about people that do it, but except for you, I've never acutallly talked to somebody who's been out and done it."

In late May, June and July, monster catfish seek out shallow, underwater carves where they lay their eggs.  Catfish grabblers, or noodlers as they are sometimes called, seek out the hidden holes, reach inside and grab the catfish - unless the catfish grabs them first.

Asked why more people don't do it, Jenkins said, "They're scared.  People hear about things that you might grab a hold of.

"I've been doing it since 1982 and I've never touched a snake or turtle inside of a hole.  Everywhere we grabble is completely submerged.  Turtles and snakes have go to breathe, so they don't stay there.  People just don't know the truth about grabbling and how much fun it can be."

Wilson knows that now.

"It's a blast," he said.  "It's addicting almost."

It takes some skill, however.  Many times aggressive catfish will grab a grabblers's outstretched hand.  Just as often, however, the fish will try to hide, far out of reach.

Jenkins uses a long pole to guide the fish within arm's reach.  It often takes two or three grabblers working together to block the hole's entrance and grab the fish that may weigh 40 or 50 pounds.  In many places, grabblers must dive beneath the surface. 

"There's a lot more teamwork to it than I ever thought,"  Wilson said.

He and his sons had reviewed Jenkins' lastest DVD called "Girls Gone Grabblin'."  The family-oriented production includes 90 minutes of women learning the art.  It also inculdes a segment called "Grabbling 101"  where Jenkins provides short lessons on how it is done.  Saturday he proved he is just the man to teach it, as he used the long pole to probe the depths of a hard-to-reach cave.  After nearly 20 minutes, Jenkins got a hand on the catfish's lower jaw.

"Help!" he said.  "This is a big one."

With 20 years of grabbling experience, he commands attention with such a shout.  His wife Fostana, and Wilson's 16 year-old son Hunter quickly came to his aid.  The huge fish and three grabblers beat the surface of Watts Bar to a froth before the massive beast finally was wrestled to shore.  The fish pulled the scales to 51 pounds- the second largest catfish Jenkins says he's ever grabbled.

"We dipped up a couple (while electrofishing) on the Mississippi River that were 35 or 40 pounds, but I've never seen one that big,"  Wilson said.

Every fish the Jenkinses grabble is returned to the water. This time Wilson brought along tags to mark each one.

"Its kind of a cool unofficial research project,"  the TWRA official siad, "It will be really interesting for me to find out if the fish that we tagged go back to the same hole year after year.  They may kind of be like salmon in that they go back to where they were spawned from."

Research aside, Wilson said his two sons got the greatest lesson of all.

"The biggest part of it is them going back and telling all their friends in Nashville," he said.  "Friends who can barely catch a bluegill with a hook and a worm."

Fostana Jenkins said the "Girls Gone Grabblin'" DVD has generated a lot of talk among a new audience.

"It's made a lot of people realize that anybody can do it," she said.  "You don't have to be big and strong.  You just have to use a little technique."

Plus a little intestinal fortitude, knowing you may end up in hand-to-hand combat with a 51 pound catfish.  And the Jenkinses say there are bigger ones out there.

"Yeah, and I think they've got our name on them, too," Marty said.

Richard Simms at sports@timesfreepress.com


As of Friday, grabbling- also called noodling, tickling, dogging, and hogging- is legal in Georgia from March 1 to July 15th each year.  Per House Bill 301, which had only two negative votes in the Senate, participants "can take flathead, channel and blue catfish by hand, without the aid of any device, hook, snare, net or other artificial element and without the use of any breathing apparatus."


















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