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The art and bond of grabbling

BY TURNER ST. ROMAIN

news@oxfordeagle.com

Some say it’s the thrill of the catch. Others say it is about carrying on a family tradition. For many, grabbling — fishing for catfish with bare hands — is a combination of both, a thrilling Southern fishing hobby that’s unlike most anything in the outdoors.

Also known as noodling, the bare-handed form of catching catfish is legal in Mississippi with a non-official season that runs from May to mid-July, when the biggest catfish are hunkered down in holes or boxes fisherman have placed in waters. North Mississippi’s Sardis Reservoir is popular with grapplers since it has a large catfish population and can produce big fish.

“Initially when you reach into the box, if it is a flat head most of the time they’ll nibble at you and are just trying to escape, they just want to get out,” said Brion Whitten, who has been grabbling since he was 15 years old and now takes his 7-year-old. “If it’s a blue catfish or humpback catfish, they are gonna stay in there and latch onto you. They’re the ones that’ll scrape your hand up; they have a lot of pressure when they bite down.”

Whitten said he didn’t catch a fish that day he first went at the age of 15, but the experience was enough to keep him coming back. Eventually, he was hooked.

“Watching all the older guys and seeing how fun it was and seeing how big they (fish) were,” he said.

Whitten now runs the annual North Mississippi Grabbling Tournament at Sardis.

Grabbling, or noodling, is mostly done in the South, and more in the rural areas. Friends and family members pass down the unique fishing tradition. Style of fishing is different, considering some make their own “breathing machines,” hand-crafted respirators that will let divers go 15 feet deep, while others grabble in more shallow water by simply holding their breath.

Grabblers are typically catching female catfish looking for a sheltered location in holes and rocks or tubs or other materials put into the water by fishermen. Grabblers will go under water and stick their hand or foot into a log and drag the catfish out of the water bare-handed.

The sport has its risk since diving in lakes with structures has little room for mistakes. Many states outlaw grabbling for this reason. Last year, for instance, Lafayette County resident Wesley Loptien died grabbling. He was underwater with a respirator and got his feet caught and couldn’t get back up in time.

“There was a stump that you went in, and it had a pretty big hole you could get in easy and then under the water it had a smaller hole, and something happened while he was in there a fish could’ve hit his respirator, nobody knows that for sure,” said Loptien friend and grabbler Toby Lawrence.

“For some reason, he tried to come out the little hole, and he got hung halfway in and out and didn’t have his respirator, and he drowned.”

The key to grabbling is knowing where the fish are. In the spawning season, the catfish will be in holes or boxes grabblers place in the water.

“Since I was 14-15, you went and found natural holes in the banks or floating logs and caught them out of those,” Lawrence said. “Back in the old days, there would be 2-3 holes that went together, and you’d have 3 or 4 people blocking those holes, keeping them from coming out.

“Now we build boxes some of them are 3 feet wide by 6 foot long and put a hole in it because that’s the only way they can get in and out.”

Despite the friends and family tradition of grabbling the sport has its competitive if not under-handed nature.

“On Sardis, you’ll run up on people, and they’ll steal your boxes, steal your stuff and move it and everything,” Lawrence said. “It used to be and it should be more like a brotherhood, but it’s not they’ll steal them in a heart beat.”

There’s only an unofficially recognize grabbling season from May 1 to mid-July because any other time there won’t be a fish in the box or hole since they aren’t spawning.

And, many grabblers practice a catch-and-release habit to keep the big fish in the lake.

They would rather leave the biggest fish there, to get bigger.

The creativity from the grabblers comes in making their own equipment, including breathing machines and boxes for the fish.

“I started out with a homemade machine, a buddy of mine built it. He used an air compressor off a sewer treatment plant and put a belt drive and motor on it,” Whitten said.

Making the boxes involves buying the lumber, crafting them and stocking them in the lake.

“What the box is for is it creates a nest, and they go in there and bed it out,” Whitten said. “The male will go create the bed and find a female to bring back to the bed. Then she’ll lay her eggs she’ll leave and he’ll stay there and protect the egg.”

The annual tournament grabbling tournament at Sardis each June is a chance for friends to share a passion for their hobby while raising money for a good cause.

“When it got started it was me and a few buddies of mine,” Whitten said. “We’d call each other and send pictures of what we caught and guys would say my fish is bigger than yours and then we decided to have a tournament to settle this.

“It started out as a little $20 tournament and then it just kind of blew up. Now its been going on for six years and we donate the money to a veteran and selling T-shirts and hats and food. It just went from there.”

$2,400 was raised this year and went to two families in need.

Turner St. Romain is a student at Ole Miss. He wrote this story on assignment for The EAGLE.