Fathers and sons, and the art of unadorned fishing

Published 1:24 am Sunday, April 30, 2023

By Harold Brummett
Denmark Star Route

The month of May has been the traditional beginning of the Grabbling season. Grabbling is catching fish by hand. There is no standing in a mountain stream waving a line around, not some big motorboat casting time after time waiting on some poor creature out of curiosity to take the bait.

Grabbling is going to where the catfish live and catching the animal by hand. No standoff, no reeling it in no catch and release. Grabbling is just basic unadorned fishing.

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Those who watched those poor misguided souls who sport around Arkansas and Missouri on TV seem to think the term is noodling. When it comes to fish I had much rather grab than noodle.

Noodling to seems to indicate there is something other than eating planned for the fish. Grabbling is all business with the goal of bringing home something to eat.

My earliest memories of grabbling are going with my Dad and his first cousin Henry to the Tallahatchie River. Putting the boat in where Highway 7 crosses the river and heading upstream or downstream from there.

Henry, a former (WW2) Navy man, commanded the 14-foot craft. The small Jon Boat powered with a Johnson outboard motor that Henry would run wide open.

Henry would read the river and keep the small craft from running over obstacles. Dad would be in the front of the boat scanning, gripping a long-since useless Pom Pom cigar in his teeth grinning reveling in the spray and the wind. I would glance back at Henry as we cut through the water to our destination and never failed to see a wide smile on his face.

In those days, the men who fished the river all knew one another. Rivalries would spring up as they would hide, find, move and hide again hollow logs the catfish used as nests.

Before the War, before money for boats, these same men would swim together up and down the river exploring holes in the bank, in hollow logs, wherever catfish might find a likely place to lay eggs and fan them for a while.

A favorite memory is of Old Bell. Every grabbler on the river knew Old Bell. This was a hollow log where one end flared out like a bell. Catfish could not resist nesting in Old Bell and everyone wanted it. That one hollow log wandered up and down the Tallahatchie for years tied to one boat or the other moving from slew to slew tied up, tied down and hidden – for a while.

After begging my Dad for a chance to fish he finally relented. I must have been 10 or 12 years old and he gave me instructions – slide in and swell up like a toad frog. Feet first I slid in knowing the routine by heart. I asked for the bamboo pole with barbed wire on the end, used to search the log and persuade the catfish to try to get by.

Dad handed me the pole and as I started to search the log, he swam up behind me and latched onto the log on either side wedging me into position. The fish came to me and as catfish will do, took his flat head and tried to lever me out of his way. All I could feel was wet, slick skin between my legs and all thoughts turned to snakes.

The 25-horsepower Johnson motor could not have churned up more water at full throttle than I did as my efforts to exit failed. Dad held firm and he and Henry laughed at my attempts to exit the log. Calmed and realized the only exit was to catch the fish, once accomplished I swam back to the boat with my prize.

The fish was only about 20 pounds but to me it was a whale.

Nowadays there are grabbling contests and prizes. Scuba gear is sometimes used. There are
manufactured boxes instead of logs.

The nature of grabbling has changed, but men still grabble, sons, grandsons and great grandsons of the greatest generation who swam the rivers fishing by hand.

Write to Harold Brummett at denmarkmississippi@hotmail.com