F&S Classics: The Catfish Men
When you're trying to catch a fish as big as a Labrador by sticking your hand in its mouth, you need certain qualities. Foresight isn't one of them
When he finally comes up sputtering from the muddy waters of the Big Black River, there is an instant when Keith Lane looks like some ancient water god who has been catapulted into the 21st century. It’s something about the sunlight on the water rolling off his head, the way he looks at ease in the powerful river, and the catfish scepter he holds in his right hand, an 8-foot steel pole with a little grappling hook on the end.
“About 45 pounds,” says Keith, who makes his living as a timber cruiser near Jackson, Mississippi. After 25 years, he can guess a fish’s weight just by touching it with the rod. “Keep that door blocked good, Ricky. He’ll make a break for it if he can.” Ricky Lyles—who is half Keith’s size, up to his neck in water, and who can’t even swim-is grinning wildly. His job at the moment is to block the door with his feet, leaving just enough room for Keith to turn the fish around with the catfish pole. Even the dozen or so of us along for the ride in johnboats a few feet away can hear something trying to hammer its way out of the box deep under the rolling water. It sounds like a bull stuck in a linen closet. Welcome to hand grabblin’, Mississippi-style.
Keith puts on a pair of bite-resistant Normark fillet gloves, takes out a heavy stringer with a brass pin, holds it between his teeth commando-style, and goes back under with the pole. More thrashing. Then the pole moves through the water as if under its own power to Ricky, who takes it. Thirty seconds later, Keith comes back up shaking his head. “Mean sucker. Finally got him turned around, but as soon as I stuck my hand in his mouth he started rolling on me.” Keith’s grinning. He likes the mean ones.
“You Can’t Beat it for Fun”
Keith Lane was taught hand grabblin’ by Bobby Carpenter, who had a little heart trouble a few years back and mostly goes along to watch these days. But the younger men still defer to his vast knowledge of what the river and the fish will do in a given situation. “In his day, that son of a gun was tough as they come,” Keith tells me. “We’d get to the end of a day on the river, and I’d be about dead. Bobby’d say, ‘I ain’t makin’ two trips to the truck,’ pick up a 7-horsepower engine in one hand, his end of the johnboat in the other, and walk up that slick river bank. Like to kill me. I mean tough.”
Bobby learned hand grabblin’ from a farmer up around Grenada, who went after the critters in hollow logs. “I figured if they’d go in logs, they’d take to boxes,” says Bobby. “I was the one started all that business, far as I know. They’d laugh you out the boat if you used a glove back then. But you’d come home with your hands skinned up pretty good. I still love to go. You can’t beat it for fun.”
Keith’s biggest fish was a 70-pounder. He has lost count of the 50- and 60-pounders, and believes there are 100-pound fish in the river. One day two years ago, he, Ricky, Randy Parker, and Gerald Moore—the core group—went out and brought home 15 fish that weighed 607 pounds. “We filleted ’em—you got to do it right, no red meat at all—fried ’em up in peanut oil and Bearden’s cornmeal mix, got about 10 cases of beer. My girlfriend made a tub of coleslaw and 40 pounds of hush puppies. Musta been 80 people over at my house. End of the night, there wasn’t a single bite of fish left over. Nothing on earth eats like a fresh flathead.”
Over the years, Keith and his friends have set out hundreds of wooden boxes—each about the size of a small coffin with a door about 10 inches high and 18 inches across—in the Big Black, a tributary of the Mississippi River. Cypress lasts the longest, but no box lasts more than about three years. The tremendous load of sand and dirt in the current simply grinds the top of the box off in that time. The river likes to shuffle the boxes.
Sometimes it moves a box upstream or downstream from the original hole or log where it was set. Sometimes, it’ll bury a box for a year or two, then return it. Sometimes it just spirits them away. Keith won’t mark his sets with a rope or a blaze or even a beer can crammed in the crotch of a tree for fear they’ll be discovered. He keeps the map in his head. The others usually don’t go without him because he’s the one with that sixth sense of where the boxes are. During a six-week window in May and June, big flathead catfish swimming up the river to spawn find the boxes and make their nests in them.
Before he goes under again, Keith looks over at me, the Yankee observer. “We’ll get him. Some come easier ‘n others. But I ain’t never left one in the box yet.”
“This Ain’t Crappie Fishing, Son”
In theory, hand grabblin’ is simple enough. Once you’ve found a box and determined there’s a fish inside, you get the beast turned headfirst to the downstream-facing door. Then you grab the fish by the mouth with one hand, slip the sharpened stringer pin up through the bottom of its jaw with the other, wrap the rope around your hand a couple times, and hope the fish doesn’t dislocate your shoulder when it comes out of the chute. That’s the theory.
But some fish don’t cooperate. They’ll sulk in the far end of the box. Some don’t cotton to a strange hand in their mouths. At the first touch they begin “log rolling,” and if you don’t snatch your hand back fast, they’ll sprain your wrist, peel the skin off your forearm against the sides of the box, or both. Once in a while, the fish making its nest inside a box turns out to be a loggerhead turtle. Ricky once had a big one clamp down on his foot for about 10 minutes before he could beat it off with the pole. He was lucky. It left a deep V-shaped impression in his sneakers but didn’t break any bones.
Keith disappears back under the water. Fifty seconds later, he surfaces, attached to a brown beast slashing and bucking like a drunk amputee in a bar fight. Its head is wider than a shovel, with tiny eyes and long whiskers. The body is long and deep and mottled brown. The tail is powerful. It’s more than twice as big as any catfish I’ve ever caught in my life. Keith stumbles a couple of times in the water before he finally bear-hugs the fish half out of the river, robbing it of its strength. Then he heaves it into a waiting johnboat, where it punches the aluminum with its head and tail. He sees the look on my face and grins. “This ain’t crappie fishin’, son.”
The others whoop it up. We get back in the boats and head upstream, looking for the next box. The next two boxes are empty: one’s door is silted up, one is freshly cleaned by a nesting catfish who’s not home at the moment. “This next one’s always a good set,” says Keith at the third stop. “They like this fast water. The box makes a current break for the smaller fish to sit in. All that cat has to do is stick his head out the door to get a meal.”
Sure enough, the box is occupied. It’s Keith’s turn to block, Ricky’s to go down with the stringer. On his third try, he comes up attached to a small fish, maybe 30 pounds. He slings it into the johnboat as if it were a small bass. “Well, we got 75 pounds of fish already,” he says. “Could be worse.”
Keith asks if I want to do the next fish. A silence hangs in the air as I think it over. There are a dozen people waiting for my response. “What the hell,” I tell him. “Let ‘er rip.”
He stops the boat near a submerged cypress log, feeling with his feet for the box. Then he goes down with the pole while Ricky blocks. You can hear the thump 20 feet away. Keith surfaces, smiling like a devil who’s just been accepted at divinity school. “Oh, yeah,” he calls to me. “Get on in here. Already got him turned around for you.” He tells me not to try and be a hero. The fish will generally let you slip a hand in its mouth without too much fuss. Sometimes even sticking the stringer needle through their jaws doesn’t bother them much. Sometimes it does. A catfish has no teeth, but it can bite down hard. And Keith has already warned me about the log rolling.
“You ready?” he asks.
Of course I’m not ready. You need a frontal lobotomy to be truly ready for this. “Yep,” I say.
“For God’s Sake, Boy, Get ‘im Up!”
There’s exactly zero visibility under the water. I follow Keith’s leg down to the mouth of the box and slip my hand in the opening. It brushes something alive. The thing shifts slightly against my touch. I hold Keith’s ankle with my right hand and feel for the fish’s jaw with the left. I slip my thumb in its mouth and try to grip it. The mouth is ridiculously big. I’ve peed into things smaller than this.
Suddenly the fish clamps down and starts spinning counterclockwise on its axis and smashing into the sides of the box. The animal is all mouth and muscle and will, inhumanly strong. I yank my hand out hard and go up. “He’s not too keen about the whole thing,” I tell Keith. I’m shaking a little.
“You’re doing good,” he tells me. “Get your breath and try again. Sometimes it takes a while, but he’ll come.”
I catch my breath, try not to think about whether catfish-related injuries are covered by my HMO, and go back down. The fish is still in place. It lets me grip its mouth loosely this time. I release my right hand from Keith’s ankle, take the stringer from my mouth, and push the needle upward through the underside of its jaw. Miraculously, the fish does not object. On the third try, the needle pierces the thick skin, and I wrap the rope around my palm three times.
The fish and I hit the surface about the same time, an explosion of adrenaline and spray. Everyone’s yelling at me to hold on. The fish is thrashing and surging with its powerful tail, trying to take my arm with it. Keith grabs my shirt to keep me from being washed downstream. “Get his head outta the water!” Gerald shouts. “For God’s sake, boy! Get ‘im up!”
At last I find my footing atop the box and lift the beast halfway out of its element. The head is enormous, the tiny eyes a foot apart. Hands appear to help me sling it into the waiting boat, where it continues to slam its body around. I’ve done it.
By the time we head home, we’ve got seven fish, totaling 141 pounds. A mediocre day by Keith’s standards, an incredible one by anybody else’s. He hangs the fish on a scaffold in his backyard and begins the work of filleting them into bitesize strips. Mine tips his scales at 51 pounds, the biggest of the day. “I’m not saying you did the best of anybody we ever took,” Keith says. “But you did as good as anybody, I’ll give you that.”
We pop a beer and wait for the peanut oil to start bubbling in the cast-iron pot on his back porch. My hands are nicked up. But I’ll be going home with the same number of fingers I brought and the biggest catfish I’m likely to ever catch in my stomach. “You come back next year, and we’ll get you into a 70-pounder,” Keith says. Without even stopping to consider, I tell him I’ll be there.