Monsters Of The Mighty Pee Dee

Catfish Grabbling Adventure

Check out this story about a monster catfish grabbling adventure we got in on a while ago.  Most of this article was in Pinestraw magazine. The awesome photos are © by Laura Gingerich.

five against one

“How crazy is that?” Neal declared. “Five guys stuffed into a pickup truck, driving three hours to go fishing, and nobody has a fishin’ rod!”

This was exactly the situation. There were Neal Mills, his son, Brent, Mat Rees, the most adventurous MD in Rutherford County, myself, and my son, Todd. We had been invited to go “grabbling” by Richmond County residents Terry Sharpe and naturalist Lincoln Sadler. Grabbling is the fine art of reaching under submerged rocks and catching fish (especially catfish) by hand. Sharpe and Sadler are knowledgeable, well-rounded outdoorsmen who are versed in a variety of skills — everything from calling turkeys and managing game lands to identifying native grasses, trees, songbird calls, and edible wild plants. They also happen to be privy to the knowledge of a few special rocks in the middle of an undisclosed section of the Pee Dee River.

The more I lurk in the out-of-doors the more I learn that, like in the real estate business, the three most important considerations are location, location, location! If you are looking for a certain kind of plant or animal (or customer, for that matter) you’d best find a good location. On this warm, sunny summer morning these gentlemen certainly had some locations in mind — that is, certain submerged rocks. The rocks had names: Lost Rock, Blue Rock, Mills’ Rock, etc.

We met Terry at a trailhead. “Lincoln and his gang will be along shortly,” he said, and before long we heard the sound of laughter and excited voices coming down the trail. I had thought this was going to be sort of a rough, all-guy adventure, but what was approaching looked more like a jolly beach party — a dozen or more people, men and women of varying ages wearing bathing suits and floppy sun hats and carrying day packs, beach bags, and the foam flotation “noodles” so common in swimming pools.

We made our introductions and soon were on our way for the mile-long hike to the river. We had been told to bring a boat cushion or some sort of floatation device to help us cross deep spots in the river (hence the noodles). We were also told to bring wading shoes, gloves, snacks, and a stick (to give stability when wading among the submerged rocks and mud on the river bottom).

As soon as we got to the tree-lined riverbank, folks stashed their backpacks in the bushes and waded into the cool, murky waters. As a group, we moved downstream — some wading in the shallows, others in the deeper water, while others, more reluctant to make the plunge, bushwhacked along the bank.

Lincoln, who was out a distance from shore, kept looking toward the bank saying, “Lost Rock ought to be around here somewhere. I can tell by that sycamore tree.” When I looked at the bank I could see it was lined with sycamores. Which sycamore? I wondered.

“Yeah, I think this is it!” he suddenly hollered, and soon the group converged around him and his rock. Lost Rock was larger than a king-sized mattress. It was a couple of feet thick and it was about a foot or two under water.

There were several holes around the edge of the rock that led to a large cavity underneath. “Feel with your feet for the holes and block them with your feet so the fish can’t escape,” Lincoln said. The two largest holes were across from each other on opposite sides of the rock. Soon people were diving down around the rock feeling in the holes for a fish.

The technique is like this: You have to dive down and reach deep into the hole while the person next to you puts his foot on your back to help hold you down while you reach as deep as you can into the dark, watery cavity hoping you might feel a fish. If you feel the tail, and you can get a grip, they say you can squeeze the tail tight and this will temporarily paralyze the fish so you can haul it out. But more likely the fish will be facing you. And most likely it will bite you. When it bites, your job is to grab it by the lower jaw, hang on, and haul it out. Catfish do not have long sharp teeth like garfish or pickerel. Catfish jaws are lined with rows of short, but very sharp, rasp-like teeth that leave your skin looking like it was attacked by a belt-sander. (So that’s why gloves are recommended.)

“What about snakes?” someone asked.

“Snakes don’t hang out in the middle of the river under four feet of water.”

“What about snapping turtles?”

“They don’t usually, either. If there is a turtle, try to get it by the tail.”

“Thanks a lot!”

After a few of the experienced practitioners had been down and confirmed that indeed there was a fish in the hole, they offered us “newbies” a chance to try our luck.

“And I don’t want any of this ‘alligator arm’ business!” Lincoln admonished us good-naturedly while mimicking the folded-up front legs of an alligator. “You gotta reach your whole arm in there. That critter’s in there deep!”

Soon I too was experiencing full immersion with my neighbor’s foot in the small of my back, pushing me deeper as I felt my way down the side of the rock. I found the hole under the rock and reached in as far as I could. I felt all around in the hole but felt nothing, and the foot on my back yielded as soon as I made motions to come back up.

“Try again,” they said as soon as I got a breath.

This time my son Todd and I dove down on opposite sides of the rock at the same time and we both reached in.

Yes! It was unmistakable. My fingertips grazed the slippery flanks of a fish! Just out of reach. There was something down there, all right, but how could we get to it? The problem was the rock and the cavity under it were so large that two or three people reaching under at the same time could not get to the fish. That’s where the walking sticks came in. We took turns diving down and poking around in the holes with the sticks. Still nothing.

This went on for almost an hour, and I was starting to wonder why they didn’t give up and try another rock when Lincoln’s head popped up and he calmly announced, “I got it.” With both hands side by side in the lower jaw, he lifted up the front portion of a huge silent monster. The crowd gave out a collective gasp of astonishment and then a half dozen of them jumped onto the fish to keep it from struggling free while they put it on a rope. This was a huge flathead catfish, the likes of which I have never seen before — between 40 and 50 pounds, a mottled gray-brown brindle color, small expressionless eyes, and a huge mouth graced by whiskers almost six inches long.

They tied it with a rope through the gills and then tied the other end of the rope around the waist of a spritely teenager named Nicole Lindamood. She was a “newbie” and towing this huge fish would be her initiation. She was an amazingly good sport about it. She quickly named the fish “Pepe” and accepted her role gracefully, even when they recalled the time that one of their buddies got bitten on the calf by a big catfish he was towing. “Yeah, he sported a pink half moon- shaped abrasion from that catfish bite on his leg for about a week.” Could you call that a Pee Dee catfish tattoo?

Catfish in tow, we moved on down the river toward Blue Rock. Soon we were in our familiar circle again around this new rock. Grabblers started going down. Soon Brent surfaced, exclaiming, “Wow! That’s got to be a blue catfish. I can tell by the way it bit me. Look, it tore my glove!” Soon a huge blue catfish was being hauled out of its lair and wrestled onto the stringer. I was amazed that these guys could identify the species of the fish by the quality of its bite. “What did that bite feel like?” someone asked. “Here put your hand down on that rock,” Brent said, “And I’ll hit it with this stick!”

So with these two fish weighing collectively around eighty pounds, we decided this might be enough for a fish fry. They hauled the fish back up the trail and to the home of Lee Sadler, Lincoln’s brother, who is a locally famous catfish chef. Lee prepared the fish and invited everybody to a truly memorable feast. “That catfish belly meat is out of this world!” Lincoln reminisced dreamily.

flippin fish

two girls

strung over back

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A number of my books, including Swarm Tree and Wildwoods Wisdom, have stories about fish and fishing.

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cover-fishinSunfish, herring, mudfish, trout,
Grab that catfish by the snout!

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