Ten years ago, my cousin Jeff invited me to go noodling for catfish. Some people may call it grabbing or hogging, but whatever you call it, I was not privy to doing such a thing. I told him I had no interest in grabbing a snake, snapping turtle, or nutria… back in college I had a friend get his hand almost bitten off by a nutria while doing these shenanigans. Jeff is not just my cousin, he is like a brother to me; I trust him, and he assured me that would not happen. He said everything we were checking would be on the bottom of the lake with no air pockets, so if any of those dangerous species were in there, they would be dead. The only thing in these structures would be Opelousas catfish. Some people refer to them as ops, tabbies, flatheads, yellow cats, but no matter what you call them, one thing we can all agree on is that they are absolutely delicious.
I was as nervous as a cat, no pun intended. There is just something about holding your breath, diving to the bottom of the lake and hoping a large fish bites your hand that can make anyone a little nervous. Luckily, Jeff is a good cheerleader (or is just good at peer pressure) and had me down there in no time. Within minutes, I had my first fish trying to destroy my hand. I came up and told Jeff that this was stupid, and he could get him. In pure Jeff fashion, he would not let me get back in the boat without pulling him out of the hole. After about 20 minutes and multiple attempts, I finally grabbed my first cat.
We spent the rest of the evening checking 20 or so sets and pulled out 3 more big ops. Each time I reached my hand in there, the feeling never changed. It is human nature to not get bitten but for whatever reason I kept doing it because Jeff made me. The other reason I chose to make such poor decisions is because my dad’s drug is Opelousas catfish. You can bring him one any time of day or night and he will clean it. He will also fry and eat that fish until there is no more in his freezer. I am pretty sure we ate fried fish every Sunday for lunch for about 17 weeks straight after my maiden voyage.
Since 2012, we make it a point to go once or twice a year. Jeff has 50-60 structures out in the lake, and while we want to catch some to eat, we also want to let those fish successfully nest in the structures so we can continue to have a fishable population. This year, we only checked about half of his sets.
Speaking of “sets” or “structures”, I have been sworn to secrecy. I can only compare it to Fight Club, and Jeff will not allow anyone to talk about it. There are plenty of man-made structures out there, like bathtubs, hot water heaters, oxygen tanks, barrels etc. but that is not what I’m sticking my hands in. We know where some of those structures are but if we didn’t put it out, we don’t check it. Unfortunately, there are some people who don’t follow the same unwritten rules we do. We have noticed many of our sets disappearing/moving as the lake is drawn down every 4 years… but do not get me started.
Last weekend we went out for our annual trip. It was a boat filled with celebrities (other than Jeff and me) it was Anders McGehee, Dr. David McGehee, and Sheriff Stephen Williams. We made it to our 3rd set and there was a big fish in there. I dove down multiple times and ended up letting him blow out of the hole. Now I have been doing this a decade with Jeff, and I was contemplating just holding my breath and swimming to the nearest bank. If there is one thing he does not like, it’s letting a fish get out of the hole. Unfortunately, the bank was half a mile away, so I had to come up and get the breath of shame. “He blew out on me” I said. “How?!” said Jeff. I had no good explanation other than when their head comes out of the hole there is no stopping them.
We continue to check the sets and find another fish in one about 45 minutes later. Sheriff Stephen went down, and the fish smoked the hook pole, but he couldn’t get him. Dr. David went down a few times and had the same luck. Finally, Anders from the peanut gallery said, “Dad get down there and redeem yourself!” I certainly didn’t care but Doctor cousin David, handed me the pole and said, “Go get him.”
I went down and went to battle. I couldn’t let my son down and there is no way I was getting a ride back to my truck from Jeff if I let this one get out of the hole. It took me 5-10 minutes, but I finally got the fish to come to the front and it bit me. Unfortunately, it bit my thumb and twisted. I couldn’t get the rest of my hand in it’s mouth so I threw my other hand in the hole and grabbed it’s lower jaw. I had been below the water’s surface for almost a minute, and I was ready to get the fish out and take a breath. I jerked him out and gasped “I got him!” We load him in the boat and 3 generations of McGehees celebrated.
Most of you might think this a stupid thing to do, and I honestly can’t blame you. But when you have a doctor and the sheriff in the boat, it gives you a false sense of security. We only caught one that day and just like my dad, I couldn’t let him sit in the fridge long. We fried him yesterday with some squash and Vidalia onion; it might have been the best fish I’ve ever tasted. I will continue to risk digits and limbs for those succulent filets.
Dusty McGehee is a native of Downsville and a 2006 graduate of Louisiana Tech University with a bachelors in wildlife conservation. He is currently employed by WestRock and serves as an environmental engineer at the Hodge Mill. Dusty is an avid hunter and crappie fisherman, fishing crappie tournaments with his son when he is not in the woods. He and his wife Rachel have three young outdoorsmen/women: Anders, Ridge, and Mae. If you have a story idea or question about the great outdoors, you can reach Dusty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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