Some people call them grabblers, some call them noodlers or doggers, and still others call them
just plain crazy. These nontraditional anglers catch catfish not with a fishing pole and chicken
livers, but with their bare hands while standing in up to five feet of water.
It’s off the Hook STORY: JENNY POOLE HAVRON PHOTOS: MARTY JENKINS
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Since the beginning of June, Marty Jenkins has spent most weekends fishing in a method first used by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. Jenkins, a “grabbling guru” of sorts with over two decades of experience wades through the waters along the banks of the Tennessee River, reaching his hands blindly into underwater holes and hoping a catfish bites back instead of a snapping turtle, a snake, or a beaver. The Etowah, Tenn., native loves grabbling, and he has the scars to prove it.“The first couple of times I went grabbling, I didn’t think to wear gloves,” Jenkins says. “But when that first catfish grabbed my wrist and spun around hard,I wanted to scream ‘uncle’ and quit. After that catfish tore the skin off my hide, I started wearing gloves.”
CREATING THE CONDITIONS
Each spring, pairs of catfish scour the murky waters of local rivers and lakes looking for the perfect place to lay their eggs during a process called spawning. After locating and hollowing out a cave-like shelter, the female catfish will produce a compact egg mass with the 4,000 to 100,000 eggs she’s been carrying since the fall. “After she’s had the eggs, the female catfish abandons the nest, leaving it under the watchful eye of the male catfish,” says Rob Mottice, fish collections manager with the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. “Because the eggs and the fry (the baby catfish) are prime prey for large predators like bass, the male will be aggressive toward anything that comes near the nest—especially grabblers.”
HOW’D THEY DO THAT?
After locating a catfish bed—often in a hole between rocks, a hollowed-out stump, or an area under a boat ramp—grabblers block the exit of the hole with sandbags, a friend, or their body and then reach in to see what’s inside. “You try to get a reaction from whatever’s there by wiggling your fingers around a little bit,” Jenkins says. “If it’s a catfish, he’ll swat you with his tail or grab your hand in his mouth and shake it for a few seconds to get your attention.” Using large curved poles or their hands, grabblers then guide the catfish to the front of the hole where it can be reached. Once there, grabblers will let the catfish bite their arm before grabbing it by the mouth and wrestling it to the surface as it fights. “I didn’t know what to expect the first time I pulled out a catfish,” says Brandon Tindell, 21, a student at the University of Georgia in Athens, who has been grabbling with Jenkins. “It rolls and thrashes around just like an alligator. You have to hold on tight while it fights to keep it from getting away.” Usually, grabblers will work with at least one other person. One will grab the catfish and control it by wrapping his or her legs around it and the second person will pull both the catfish and the other grabbler from the water, if necessary.
CATCH AND RELEASE
Jenkins and his friends release about 95 percent of the fish they catch—they want the fish to continue spawning so they’ll be able to enjoy their sport in the future. If they do keep the fish, it’s because someone in the group is going to eat it. “Because the catfish lays so many eggs, there’s not a shortage of catfish and no harm in grabbling,” Mottice says. “It causes no more stress to the animal than any other form of fishing.” However, grabbling is certainly more dangerous for humans than traditional fishing with a rod and reel. Though the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency doesn’t keep records of the number of deaths or injuries that occur as a result of grabbling, Assistant Chief of Fisheries Bobby Wilson has heard the horror stories. “I’ve heard of people with concerns about getting fingers bitten off or being held underwater by a bigcatfish,” Wilson says. “I admire the people who are brave enough to do it.” For more information about grabbling, visit www.catfishgrabblers.com. Determined grabblers dive into murky waters and work together as a team as they struggle to tackle catfish that are often well over 50 pounds.GRABBLING FOR GLORY
So how big of a catfish can you expect to
catch with your hands? It all depends.“The largest catfish I’ve ever caught while grabbling weighed 53 pounds,” says Marty Jenkins, owner ofCatfish Grabblers based in Athens, Tenn. ‘We’ve seen tons of them in the 30- to 40-pound range, but you don’t see a lot of the really big ones.” The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency tracks state records for the largest fish caught in each class division, but doesn’t break those records down by method of fishing. The largest catfish ever recorded in Class B (methods other than rod and reel) is 86 pounds for a flathead catfish and 130 pounds for a blue catfish. “Flatheads, the most common fish for grabbling, can weigh well over 50 pounds,” says Rob Mottice, fish collections manager for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga. “Blue catfish, on the other hand, can get even larger—up to 135 pounds.”
THE TACKLE BOX
Interested in going grabbling? Check with your local fish and wildlife organization for regulations before you go. Even in states where this method of fishing is legal, some bodies of water have prohibited grabbling and most states have regulations about the size and number of fish you can take home. Currently, grabbling is legal in these 12 states: Alabama,, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri (trial period), North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Now that you’ve read about grabbling, check outCatfish Grabblers or Girls Gone Grabblin’, two DVDs produced by Marty Jenkins and his wife, Fostana, his partner in the Athens, Tenn.-based company, CatfishGrabblers. “For years, we took a video camera with us every time we went grabbling so we could give the different people who went with us a copy of the video,” Jenkins says. “Over the years, more and more people saw the first video, Catfish Grabblers, and someone suggested we try to sell it on the market.” After Bass Pro Shops bought into Catfish Grabblers and began showing it and selling it in their stores across the country, the movie began to take off. At the suggestion of a co-worker at M&M Mars in Cleveland, Tenn., Jenkins began producing the follow-up video, Girls Gone Grabblin’, which is even more popular. “At first, we didn’t know if we were going to be able to find enough girls who were willing to go grabbling with us,” Jenkins says of his latest project. “But before it was said and done, we ended up with more women than we needed for the movie.” The end result is a 30-scene, family-friendly video that explains the sport and features educational segments, outtakes, a music video, and of course, grabbling. Catfish Grabblers and Girls Gone Grabblin’ are available at Bass Pro Shops, at www.catfishgrabblers.com, or bycalling (866) 238-6099.