It’s a family tradition

“I call it ‘grabbing.’ I don’t know where they came up with ‘noodlin,’ ‘grampling’ and ‘grabbling,’” Josh Andrews sneered. “I’m grabbing fish. Most of the time, when they’re protecting their eggs, they grab you.”

Its late afternoon and we were sitting on the porch of the Andrews family camp on the shores of Lake St. John. Andrews is restless; it was his first trip of the short grabbing season, but it was too late to do anything today.

So he talked while he fidgeted and paced.

I listened.

“I got started through my uncles, Alfred and Maurice Cothern,” he said. “They were grabbers all their lives. I started going with them when I was barely big enough. Both of them are gone now.

“Dad did it when he was younger. I’m not so sure that he gave it up as much as we didn’t give him the chance. We are younger — me, my cousin Derrick Cothern, my brother Jeremy and our friend Chuck Thornton.”

Three things had become apparent to me in the short time I had known Andrews. He is very tradition-bound. He is obsessed with big fish — flathead catfish at least 40 pounds, preferably larger. And he is secretive, almost obsessively so.

“I don’t bring other people grabbing,” he explained. “You just don’t take other people. You don’t want to show them your dens.”

The dens that Andrews was referring to are cavities flathead catfish use year after year in which they spawn and protect their eggs. Den’s can be natural — hollow logs, holes under tree stumps, cavities in clay banks—or they can be in sunken or flooded man-made debris or structures.

He eyed me warily as he spoke, as if he still wasn’t sure he hadn’t made a mistake inviting me to go grabbing.

“There are tons of (flathead catfish) in (Lake) Concordia, but I’m not going to bring you there,” Andrews said. “Those dens were passed on to me by my uncles.

“Them uncles were poor folks, and they dived by holding their breath (versus using compressed air). They named their dens things like ‘Washpot Den’ and ‘Honeybee Tree.’

“My first time to bring Chuck, I really was skeptical. But where I brought him there were some holes too big for one person to stop up and some dens had two holes, so it takes a person at each hole. But there’s still places that my uncles fished that I won’t bring Chuck.”

I was beginning to feel guilty for being there.

I had to remind myself that he invited me — after a lot of waffling on his part over a period of a couple of months. As intrigued as I was about going fishing with men who stuck their arms down the throats of aggressive 50-pound fish with teeth, I was careful not to push him for the invitation.

He shifted mental gears a bit, explaining that the spawning season (and therefore the grabbing season) begins in mid-April and extends to early July.

Male fish enter the cavities first and fan the mud out of them with their tails. Early in the season, grabbing produces only one fish per den, and they are mostly males.

“My uncles,” Andrews said, “believed that males released scent or made a noise that attracted the females. Females appear when the quail start to sing. That’s what the old-timers would say.”

During the spawning peak, two fish will often be found in one den. One will be a male, the other a female.

According to Andrews, the length of the season will vary. He has caught paired fish as late as July, when females have usually left the dens and only males are present protecting their spawn.

Besides Louisiana, Andrews has grabbed catfish in Mississippi, Oklahoma at the famed Okie Noodling Tournament and Texas. This year he is planning to go to Illinois.

“They are real strict there,” he lamented. “You can’t use (compressed) air, you can’t use a hook in deep hole and they have a very short season.”

Grabbing is legal all over Louisiana, he noted, but in some lakes like Lake Bruin, the “lake committee” can cause hassles.

He ticked off places he has grabbed in Louisiana: Thompson Creek, Tickfaw River, Amite River, Bayou Cocodrie, Tensas River, Ouachita River, Pearl River and a host of lakes. The list seemed endless.

“If Uncle Alfred saw a hole of water,” recalled Andrews nostalgically, “he would say, ‘Let’s go try it; let’s go try that mudhole.’ We went everywhere!

“My uncles were gung-ho about catching catfish. Nothing else mattered during those three months — they would just go. Nothing would stop them. I see some of that in me. They would get home at 10 o’clock at night and get up the next day and go again. Both of them had full-time jobs.

“I took the whole month off work, and I will dive every day but Sunday, just like my uncles. Sunday, you go to church. They didn’t hunt on Sunday, either. That’s the way we grew up. We just don’t go on Sunday. It’s the Lord’s day.

“I’m going through a divorce now. When this time of the year comes, I don’t want to hear, ‘When are you coming home?”

About Jerald Horst 959 Articles
Jerald Horst is a retired Louisiana State University professor of fisheries. He is an active writer, book author and outdoorsman.