Man vs. Catfish: Catching Flatheads by Hand in Mississippi's Yazoo River

When I was in the sixth grade, there was a know-it-all kid in my class who had a whipping coming all year, until one morning after a little jawing back and forth, I met him halfway across the room and busted his lip. I landed one or two more punches and he caught me in my right eye before the teacher pulled us apart. It was tough to say who the winner was, but nonetheless, I tasted sweet satisfaction. Grabblin' has a similar outcome. With your forearm laced in bruises and scrapes after you've muscled a big, slimy cat from its dark hole to the river's surface, it's only fair to call the fight a draw, and yet you walk away grinning like a wild man.Jason Sealock
Late last June, my friend, photographer Jason Sealock, and I took a road trip to grabblin's mecca, the little farming community of Greenwood, Miss. The town is situated along the muddy banks of the Yazoo, Tallahatchie, and Yalobusha Rivers-"all meandering tributaries of the Mississippi, full of alligators, cottonmouths, and enough Southern lore to baffle the most skeptical Yankee. These waters also hold more nasty, pissed-off blue and flathead catfish than you're likely to encounter anywhere else in the South.Jason Sealock
We met the leader of the local band of grabblers, Bob Henderson, in a searing parking lot on the edge of town. Bob looked as tough as he had sounded on the phone a few weeks earlier when I called to see if we could tag along. "I don't give a damn who goes with us," he'd said. "Lots of people think they want to try it, 'til it's time to get in the river." Bob's shirt was torn in several places and splotched with dirt. His arms were dark from the sun, and his hands were covered in scars from both farmwork and catfish. That evening after dinner, Bob's buddy, Rick Parsons, unabashedly bragged about Bob's grabblin' exploits. "What makes him so good is that he can hold his breath for so long. I've seen him stay down for two minutes at a time, and then come up with a huge fish. Shoot, I've even seen him come up with two huge fish--80 pounds of catfish on one arm--his hand threaded through one's gills and into the mouth of the other." "I can't hold my breath for two minutes," I said. "You won't hold it for two seconds if you're scared."Jason Sealock
For most people, the idea of swimming through a maze of tree roots and limbs in a dark, swift river is enough to evoke carnal fears. And then there are the catfish. Bob once caught a cat that weighed 90 pounds; a fish that size could grab a man's arm and hold him underwater without really trying. Losing a layer of skin to the fish's sandpaper teeth is a given, and if an ill-tempered fish decides to roll, you'll lose more than that. The larger fish can latch on north of the elbow, and getting free often means pinning the fish against the bottom. Otherwise, they'll just keep swallowing arm. I told Bob I wasn't too worried about getting scars because I had packed a pair of leather gloves. "I may wear gloves, but you ain't. You're not gonna catch your first catfish and get your picture taken with a glove on," he said. "This is the real thing."Jason Sealock
The next day, I left my gloves in my bag and met Bob's buddies and their two mean-as-hell rat terriers on the banks of the Yazoo around noon. In four johnboats, we ran upriver for nearly an hour and a half, then began drifting downstream to check the spawning boxes strung along the banks. Bob had built the 4-foot cavities himself and sunk them with mud--sometimes 15 feet below the surface--at designated spots in the river. Each was tied to a tree or a stump with heavy cable. In really deep spots, grabblers could use the cable to pull themselves to the bottom.Jason Sealock
I was up first. I dove in and the water's color went from coffee to solid black. At the bottom, I swept my hands across the mud and felt nothing. I surfaced to breathe. "Can't find it," I sputtered. "Don't start that," Bob said. "Find it or get back in the boat."Jason Sealock
I dove again. This time I bumped into the box and reached inside as far as my shoulder. There was nothing inside. I surfaced with the news. Bob smiled and dove under to check himself. "There better not be one in there, man," Jason said once Bob was underwater. There wasn't. "No fish," Bob said as pulled himself into the boat.Jason Sealock
As the day wore on, I got faster at finding the boxes, but each time I dipped my hand inside the hole, I felt the same nauseating wave of fear. Rick's warning echoed in my head: "The first time, you'll swear it's an alligator in there."Jason Sealock
After a couple of fishless hours, it became apparent that we were a little early for the flathead spawn, and a little late for the blue cat spawn. I had exhausted myself fighting the current. As we pulled up to the last three boxes, I asked Bob to go ahead without me. He disappeared next to a pole tucked into a muddy, sloped bank, and then surfaced empty-handed. "Get in the water, Junior. There's a flathead in this one."Jason Sealock
I hopped in and slogged through the water toward Bob. Chants and jeers started building in the boats behind me. I heard splashes as two of them jumped in to get a good view of me screwing up. I took a deep breath and dropped below the surface. This box was relatively shallow. I grabbed the roof with one hand and reached inside with the other. Foot-long whiskers brushed across my arm. Before I could move, the fish lurched forward and crunched my little finger. I bolted to the surface.Jason Sealock
"Got him?" Bob asked. "No." I spit mud into the current. "He bit me, I just didn't grab him." I took another breath and went under. The catfish had moved to the back of the box, but it didn't take long for my hand to end up in his mouth again. This time, I clamped down on his bottom jaw. The catfish shook its head back and forth, shredding the skin on my knuckles with its upper teeth. Above the surface, the guys in the boats a few feet away could hear the fish's head hammering against the walls of the box. Then the cat tore loose, and I needed to surface for more air. The back of my hand was a shiny red where a strip of skin was missing. As I stood panting midriver, I sensed the crew was rapidly losing faith in me. I went back under a third time and again found the critter's mouth. But instead of grabbing his jaw, I pushed my hand through its gill plate. The bones in the gills were worse than the teeth. They felt like razors slicing across my arm as the fish thrashed. I moved my right hand into the box and clasped the fingers on my left hand. Now something would have to tear--me or the fish--before we were separated again.Jason Sealock
I eventually managed to yank the fish out of the box. As I dragged it up through the water, I could feel its tail fanning. I expected all hell to break loose when we hit the surface. Catching the cat's body between my knees, I popped out of the water.Jason Sealock
Jason began snapping photos as the 30-pound cat splashed on the surface, its massive olive head chewing on my arm.Jason Sealock
I moved to the boat and gave a heave as if I were loading a square bale of hay. The fish went over the side and hit the aluminum with a thud. From start to finish, the fight lasted less than a minute, but like a minute in a knife fight, it was intense.Jason Sealock
At last, I relaxed enough to hear the crew around me, laughing and hollering. Bob grabbed my hand and shook it. "That was cool" was all I could manage.Jason Sealock
Bob called me at home the next week, when my wounds were beginning to scab over. He told me that the boxes were full of fish now, and Jason and I ought to get back to Greenwood for more grabblin'. I wish we had gone.Jason Sealock
I spoke to Bob once more, after Hurricane Katrina passed through Greenwood. When I called again in early May, just before the catfish spawn, Bob's wife, Charlene, told me that he had been killed in a farming accident back in February. Paying tribute to a lost friend isn't something I suspect grabblers do well, but I will say this: In the first part of June when the sun got really hot, I went out on Kentucky Lake with a few of my buddies to probe the barrels that I had sunk in the spring. The currents of the Tennessee River had washed most of them away, but one of the remaining few held a 16-pound flathead, which I managed to wrestle into my boat. It was a runt by Bob's standards. But had he been there, I've got no doubt he would have smiled, cussed, and shaken my bloody hand.Jason Sealock