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November/December 2006

Kickin' Back

Noodles of Fun

Sometimes the noodler grabs the catfish and sometimes...





They poke their hands under submerged rocks and logs, feeling around in the muddy, murky water for something big and slimly and ugly.

Hopefully it’s a catfish.

“You never know what you’re liable to grab onto,’’ says Marty Jenkins, known as the grabbling guru. “Shoot, that’s what makes it exciting.’’

“Grabbling’’ is what Jenkins, 41, of Etowah, Tenn., calls the technique that involves feeling under structure for big catfish and then catching them barehanded.

It’s also known as “noodling,’’ “hogging’’ and “grappling.’’

“It depends on where you grew up,’’ Jenkins says. “Around here we call it ‘grabbling.’ I figure the term derived from ‘grabbing’ because you grab the catfish by the jaw and hold on. But ‘noodling’ might describe it best, because trying to hold onto a big old thrashing catfish is like trying to hold onto a giant wet noodle.’’

Jenkins enjoys it so much that he made a nationally-circulated video, Girls Gone Grabblin’, in which attractive young ladies in swimming suits wrestle giant catfish. It’s not risqué, just good clean fun. Jenkins’ wife, Fostana, is among the grabbling girls featured.

While Jenkins is able to find the humor in the sport, he is also serious about it. And he cautions that grabbling/noodling is not for the faint of heart or the weak of hand. He has had one finger broken, suffered ligament damage in another, and was almost drowned by a giant catfish a few years ago.

“I was bending down with my head under water when I got my hand hung in the gills of a big cat,’’ he says. “It was wedged back under a rock and I couldn’t pull it out. I started thrashing around and my buddy swam over and managed to pull me loose.’’

Jenkins has caught catfish weighing 52 pounds, “and when you get one that big and it starts to roll, it can break your wrist. You’ve gotta know what you’re doing.’’

Jenkins said the key is to feel around the fish until you locate its head, then grab it by the lower jaw. And hang on.

Bobby Wilson, a biologist with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says big catfish tend to seek submerged shelters for their nests.

“They are very aggressive when they are spawning,’’ he says. “If something — say, your hand — gets too near the nest, they’ll clamp down on it.’’

Wilson, who has accompanied Jenkins on some of his grabbling adventures, says the method does not hurt the catfish population.

“Grabblers take fewer fish than fishermen using traditional means,’’ he says.

What about the danger of grabbing onto something other than a catfish?

“Most people automatically think about snakes and turtles,’’ Jenkins says, “but in all my years of grabblng I’ve never got hold of one. I guess it’s always possible, though.’’

What about the barbs — the sharp spines on a catfish’s fins that can inflict a painful prick?

“They wear down with age,’’ Wilson says. “On the bigger, older fish you don’t have to worry about getting stuck.’’

Jenkins jokes that he got started catching catfish with his hands “because my brother had the pole.’’

Actually, he says, “My buddy and I were camping at a lake one day about 20 years ago and we saw a guy wading around, feeling under the banks, catching big catfish. I told my buddy, ‘Hey, I bet I can do that!’ ’’

Famous last words for a lot of outdoorsmen; but not for Jenkins. He jumped in the water and started feeling around for his first catfish. He’s been happily noodling ever since.

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