Alabama Folkways Articles

June 6, 1995

 

"THAT'S WHAT I CALL FRESH FISH"

By Aimée Schmidt

Memorial Day signals the beginning of summer. Time to vacate, recreate, and go fishing, or grappling, as the case may be. Grappling (pronounced "grabbling"), noodling, tickling, and marling are terms for hand fishing. Armed with only a stick for "tickling" the fish out of his den, grapplers will search swamps, rivers, and streams for the delicious, ubiquitous Ictaluridae: the catfish. To the uninitiated the practice seems bizarre if not downright foolhardy. But to those who have been baptized with the bite of a blue cat and still manage to land it, grappling is sheer enjoyment.

Hurtsboro resident Mickey Easley grew up in Calhoun County, Mississippi where grappling is still a way of life. He's been at it over thirty years starting as a boy in Mississippi and, since living in Alabama, along the Tombigbee, Cahaba, and Black Warrior rivers. Easley speculates that hand fishing has native American origins. Commercial fishermen used other methods, but farmers adopted it as a means of subsistence fishing. People continue to hand fish for recreation and because, as Easley said, "I've been doing it so long, I can't imagine not doing it."

Starting in late spring and into summer, as the water temperature rises at different strata of lakes and rivers, catfish will spawn. The male chooses a den and cleans it out, even wearing off skin and fins in the process. When the bed is prepared, he will allow the female in to lay her eggs, and he fertilizes them. He then runs her out and remains alone guarding the eggs until they hatch a week or so later. Grapplers search these dens during the bedding period for yellow cats, blue cats, channel cats, and any other worthy and tasty opponent.

Hollow logs, bank dens, and Tupelo Gum and Cypress tree stumps made hollow from heart rot are natural cavities for beds. Easley also constructs several types of artificial dens (which are legal in Alabama but not in Mississippi). Metal milk jugs, wooden boxes, water heaters, and metal pipes are some of the materials used. He puts a wooden front and interior in the metal pipes, because the fish don't seem to like the metal. Some people mistake these for traps, but, said Easley, the fish always have a way out "until we stick a hand in there to catch them." He sets out the artificial dens in April in a flood plain area where the water level is static and the dens will stay submerged all year. Natural dens are more problematic. "You stop up all the exits with a hand or foot or sack, then you 'tickle' the fish with a stick to see if he's in there." once the eggs are laid, the male protects them ferociously and will bite anything or anyone who comes near them. "When the fish bites, you've got to hold on instead of jerk back." That's not easy considering these fish will bite through gloves and break the skin. A friend of his, a novice at grappling, dry-docked a fish when it bit him. "He pulled back so fast and slung that fish about 8 feet to shore... Sometimes they grab hold like a bulldog and shake you, then turn loose hoping you'll go away. You do that repeatedly until he drives you off or you carry him home with you." These days Easley and other grapplers wear gloves to protect their hands and wet suits to keep them warm and buoyant in the water.

Summoning the courage to engage in such a sport is none too easy. Alcohol has made many fainthearted brave, but Easley discourages this. Peer pressure, cajoling, and rivalry are more effective. Men and women and young boys and girls just learning the craft will shame one another into reaching into the den below the murky water. Easley recalls, as a young boy, he and his Sunday school classmates comparing the bites and scratches on their hands, from the previous day's adventure. Such battle scars were worn with pride, and the child with the most earned bragging rights for the week.

Mark Twain wrote that Huck Finn and Tom pulled a catfish the size of a man out of the Mississippi River. That may be an exaggeration, but only slightly. It is not unusual to catch a fish in the 50 to 60 lb. range and even over 100 lbs. for a blue cat, said Easley. Novices often fear getting finned while grappling, but Easley said that's rare because the fish wear down their fins when preparing a bed. He has never come across a snake or a turtle, although he did find a beaver in a hollow log "...and when you find something that feels like it has hair, you give it a lot of room."

Those unfamiliar with the practice, including fishery biologists, often criticize it, said Easley, but it's safe and poses no significant threat to the fish population. As the practice gains popularity in Alabama, Easley foresees a regulated season and bag limit. Some commercial catfish farms have adopted the practice, but grappling began and continues as a family and community activity. "It takes experience to remember year after year where the hollow logs are under the water and which stumps are good dens. Each person who learns this cultures it in some way and passes it along to the next generation." In his birthplace of Calhoun County, Mississippi, Easley said the name Hamilton is synonymous with grappling. He wouldn't mind at all if his name earns the same recognition in Alabama.