The Catfish Men

When you're trying to catch a fish as big as a Labrador by diving down and 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.

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. Sissified. 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."

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. ears. 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."

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.