Monday, July 26, 2010

Catfishing in the raw

I need not remind you it's been brutally hot for the past week here in the East.
Instead of holing up in the house this weekend with the AC cranking, I opted to hop in the truck and drive 4 hours east to what is arguably the hottest place in the Carolinas - the Sandhills region. I did so not because I'm some sort of masochist (well, I'll let you be the judge of that once you've read through this post) but to visit a great friend and get back to fishing at its very core.
I've known Lincoln for the better part of a decade. He epitomizes everything I love about the South. Sure, he's hospitable, but I think that term is overused in describing Southerners. He's also generous, genuine, honest and a master of tomfoolery. He's the only friend I have who whittles, makes persimmon bread in a cast iron pan, maintains a pack of purpose-driven beagles and catches oversized fish with his bare hands.
That's right, Lincoln belongs to a small tribe of catfish grabblers (also called noodlers, gravellers or hoggers, depending on what part of the country you're in) that regularly pulls flathead and blue catfish weighing more than 40 pounds out of their favored stretch of North Carolina's Pee Dee River.
Ever since my first grabbling experience two summers ago, I've been anxious to get back to the river. After regretfully turning down a couple of invitations already this year, I took the opportunity to join in the last fishing expedition of the year and hoped the success of what has been a terrific season would continue for just one more day.
I arrived in Southern Pines an hour before sundown at the home Lincoln now shares with his bride of one year, Cameron. They live smack in the middle of the state's best and most beautiful horse country, and the epicenter of the iconic long leaf pine forest, which is no accident, as the couple is driven by a passion for fox hunting that takes them around the globe in pursuit of great horses, great hounds and exotic places.
As I pulled down the long drive, I noticed a wall of storm clouds advancing from the north. In my travels, I have seen lightning ricochet off mountaintops in the Colorado Rockies and powerful squalls whip the ocean into a washing machine, but I think there is no more impressive place to witness a thunderstorm than the Carolina Sandhills. It is a special place.
Cameron is a consummate hostess, and within moments of my arrival, a small dinner party was underway. Neighbors, family and other grabblers sat down to a sumptuous feast of slow-cooked, Moroccan-style lamb, cucumber, tomato and mint salad, and plenty of good red wine. And just when the dinner plates were cleared, Cameron produced a mandarin-filled cake with coconut frosting that was bigger than my head, cut into heavy slices that pushed my stomach to its breaking limit. More wine and conversation followed, and then it was off to bed with visions of giant catfish swimming in my head.
The next morning, I awoke to a rooster crowing on top of the homestead's chicken coop, where they keep some 16 laying hens. For breakfast; a bowl of peeled and sliced SC peaches and a farm fresh hard-boiled egg - simply perfect - and then we were off.
At the river, we met up with the rest of the day's group, including two veteran grabblers - Lincoln's brother Lee, and friend, Rupert. The rest had experience ranging from occasional participants (like myself) to first-timers. In all, we totaled 16, with perhaps 8 or 9 active fishermen and the rest, enthusiastic spectators. I should say that, although one might question the wisdom of bringing such a large group to their most-prized fishing holes, Lincoln, Lee and Rupert are extremely generous fellows who, nevertheless, probably wouldn't think twice about distributing Sandhills justice to anyone who abuses the privilege. (Besides, if you put me on the same stretch of river tomorrow and told me to find any one of the dozen or so catfish rocks we tried Sunday, I doubt I could find a single one.)
So now; a description of grabbling method and technique...
To hand-fish large, free-swimming catfish from a body of water, one must first have a place with large catfish. These are typically shallow, warm-water rivers with an abundance of large rocks and/or submerged trees where catfish will take up residence. The fish are normally either the native blue catfish, or the introduced flathead catfish; both of which may attain considerable size, as proven out by the recent rod-and-reel capture of the pending 130-pound, world record blue cat in Missouri. The water level must allow grabblers to wade or swim to likley catfish hangouts and then dive down to reach around hoping for a bite. That's right, I said bite. The most common way to grabble a fish is to stick your hand into the entrance of a catfish lair and have the fish defend itself by latching onto your outstretched fingers. Then, the idea is to turn the tables on the fish by shoving your other hand into its mouth or gill plate and wrenching it out of its hiding place. I'm totally serious. Why doesn't the fish just swim away, you ask? because it feels safe in its hiding place and because the gang of grabblers blocks all entrances/exits to the lair with rocks or their feet except one - the one through which the fish is to be grabbled from. Does it hurt, you ask? Ummm, yes. Blue catfish have strong jaws, sharp teeth and a nasty disposition. They are more likely to inflict pain on the grabbler than flatheads, which have smaller teeth and are slightly less-inclined to defend themselves. Either way, a successful grabbler's hands will look like they've been run through a cheese grater. Often, a stick is required to feel around in the hole to A: figure out if anyone is home and B: coax the fish to come closer to the entrance where it can be successfully grabbled.
Important vocabulary to know:
Jawber - term used to describe the stick-poking a grabbler might resort to to reposition a fish (i.e. Go down there and jawber him a bit to get him to come closer to the hole.) May also be used to describe any poking action (i.e. Hey bubba, watch where the end of your stick is. You nearly jawbered out my eye.)
Alligator arm - term used to describe a timid, often neophyte grabbler who is concerned about going up to his/her shoulders into a hole under a rock the size of a Volkswagon and extending his/her arm into the murky gloom hoping a giant fish will bite them on the hand (i.e. He was a likely looking lad, who talked a big game, but when we got him down to the river it turned out he had alligator arms.)
Noodle - another term for grabbling etc., but also, ironically, the universally recognized name for the long, tubular, foam floating devices grabblers often use to cross sections of deep water (i.e. Damn, all this noodling is making me tired. Pass me that noodle so I can rest.)
With temperatures forecast to hit 100 degrees and an equally obscene humidity level, the gang was anxious to cover the 2-mile trek to the river and hit the water. By the time we reached the shoreline at 10 a.m., I was dripping sweat and rubbing horsefly welts.
We made our way to the first known catfish rock in short order, but it was empty. At the second, there were only two holes for the fish to escape, so Lincoln blocked one and sent me down with a jawbering stick to see if anyone was home. Though the water level was low and visibility good, by the time I descended three feet to the bottom, I couldn't see more than a few inches in front of my face. I reached around and found the hole, which was about as big as a watermelon, then stuck my arm in as far as I could and waved the stick around. At first, all I could feel was the cavern wall and gravel bottom, but then there was something else - something soft and smooth that gave a little as I gently probed. I ran out of air and had to surface. "He's in there," I reported.
With our quarry located, the grabblers broke into two teams, with anglers at each entrance to the lair. From there, we took turns trying to snatch the fish or push it closer to the other side of the rock where someone from the other team could catch it. After 20 or so individual attempts, Ryan went down to the hole I was covering with Lincoln and, after a lengthy dive, resurfaced with only his lips and said calmly, "I've got his tail." At the news, Lincoln and I dove immediately to assist. Unlike a fish grabbed by the mouth, a tail-caught catfish is liable to be lost simply because it can easily break free from your grasp. Halfway down, I grabbed onto the first thing I could find, but released it quickly because I thought I had mistakly latched onto someones' thigh. When I resurfaced, I could see Lincoln and Ryan were positioned in such a way that I could not have had them - I had just let go of the fish. Luckily, Ryan still had his precarious hold and I went back down. This time I could tell I had the fish by the base of the tail, but only for a few seconds, as it kicked away and broke our grip, only to scoot back under the rock. In its haste however, the fish swam all the way to the opposite entrance, where Mark and Lee tagged up to wrestle the beast to the surface.
Pinned to the top of the rock, the big blue catfish lay stunned while a string was run under the gill plate and out the mouth and then tied off. With that, the fish was ours!
Flush with success, we moved to down river to other favorite rocks. Some had fish, but most did not, and the fish we did find all managed to elude capture one way or another. And so, some five hours later, the 2010 Pee Dee River grabbling season came to an end, but not before everyone, including several intrepid young women (lest you think this is a sport dominated by drunken men) had a chance to tangle with the whiskered denizens of the deep. Back on shore, the fish tipped the scales at 33 pounds - an impressive catch by any means, but far short of this season's high mark, a 56-pound flathead.
I still haven't caught that giant flathead that lurks in my dreams, but I knew as I said my goodbyes, that I'll be back again next year to give it another try.


  1. That must have been a gargantuan mandarin filled coconut frosted cake.

    Upon navigating to your recent post, I was immediately transported back in time to our trip two years ago. I'll never forget that big flathead tailwalking away from my alligator arm grip.

  2. That fish is still spoken of in hushed tones Brian.

  3. That picture and the whole concept of grabbling are terrifying. And I have to ask: what's mazzafeghedi sausage?

  4. It pairs nicely with fava beans and a nice chianti....

  5. JIM!

    How happy I was to stumble unto your page and discover your blog! Your quips and tales are, as always refreshing and marvelous.

    It would appear there's no shortage of adventure for you in western North Carolina.

    I can think of no more fitting place to publish an open invite to your and your wonderful bride to visit/stay with us in Deutschland.

    I am now following you on your blog and will be a frequent visitor/commentator of you shenanigans.

    All the Best,

  6. Sarah: It's a sausage from Tuscany made from pork and pork liver. Brian and I have been making it the last couple of years with venison and wild pigs. We use the recipe from Hank Shaw's blog - Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook. It's rich, but not livery at all. I'll fix some for you.
    Matt: Always good to hear from you brother! I've always wanted to visit Germany. Now I'll have an excuse. Safe travels.