Natives of Marshall County, Miss. fish for catfish most of the year by the accepted hook-and-line method. But in the spring, when the big cats hide in submerged hollow logs to spawn, the hook-and-line fishermen stand aside and let the grabblers take over. The grabblers dig cats out of their spawning beds with bare hands, a feat that takes some dexterity and often a great deal of courage. The dexterity comes with experience; a few belts of corn whisky buck up the courage. A grabbler may grabble a 60-pound yellow cat. He may also grabble an angry beaver, an unhappy muskrat, a bathing cottonmouth water moccasin or a small alligator.
"Even a 10-pound catfish can strip your flesh right off the bone," says John Camp Jr., Mississippi game and fish director. "Me, I stay in the boat and guard the lunches."
It takes palpable gumption just to stay in the boat on the ominous waters favored by grabblers. Cypress-darkened Sardis Water, gloomily named for the ruined, ancient and buried city of Asia Minor, has taken half a dozen lives within the year. The most recent were rumored to be two of Pontotoc County's most valuable and complementary citizens, economically speaking—a local bootlegger and his best customer.
None of this deterred a group of the most reputable citizens of Marshall County two days after the latest drownings. At Wyatt's, a landing on Sardis. Game Warden Bob McAlexander's graphic accounts of dragging for yesterday's bodies enlivened a place already peopled by its own ghosts. (Few know that Wyatt's was the first town in all the Chickasaw Cession, having been settled in 1832. Mysteriously, the town disappeared before the Civil War. By then it was unpopulated Wyatt's Crossing, site of a Confederate gun emplacement that ambushed Federals traversing the desolate Tallahatchie River.)
June 14, 1964
"Bob Braggard, let's get your jitney down here and get this boat in the water," interrupted Grady McAlexander, who looks like the editor of the Tombstone Epitaph and who, in fact, edits the Holly Springs South Reporter. Three boats were soon skittering across 60,000-acre Sardis in search of habitable logs. Longtime grabbler Andy Work, proprietor of Work's Good Gulf Service in the old slave-market town of Potts Camp, detected the first likely log. Into the chill morning water splashed Joe Cooper and Forest Service Man Lamar Day in approved grabbling fashion—fully clothed—to start the day's hunt.
Cooper's delicate probing brought swift disapproval from Holcomb (Doc) Black: "He foolin' around like he raised that old fish in that log. Tickle him with the mop." Andy gave Lamar the mop, a long pole with a knot of barbed wire at one end to encourage shy fish. Lamar commenced tickling. "I feel something," he announced. Cooper observed placidly, "So do I feel something. You got the ba'bed wahr into mah foot." "You sure?" asked Doc. After a moment's reflection, Joe said amiably, "It's not so cold in here I haven't got enough feeling to notice that wahr."
The third log offered a better trophy than a Cooper foot. Reported Joe, legs in log and with an unusually rapid output of words, "Whup, he's gettin' out, no, he isn't, man, Ah'm on a pile of fish here, a good un went out, he bumped me real good, I got another un between mah legs, I got my foot on one." "What kind is he, yellow or blue?" Andy asked. "Cain't tell," said Joe, mock-exasperated. "Cain't tell whether he's got cavities either."
"Somebody catch him before we eat lunch," snapped Doc, in the water now. "I like to got his gill," yelled Joe. Submerged by the thrashing, Warden Bob came up for oxygen and to bark, "Hell, this water's better'n air after you get used to breathin' it."
"Ow," said Joe to the fish, conversationally. "That's my two best feet. I'm real fond of them. Don't eat 'em." Bellowed Bob suddenly, "You-all ease back a little. I got a good holt on him." Nearly swallowing his damp cigarette and submerging again, McAlexander abruptly surfaced and wrestled a big humpback blue cat into the boat. It was bucking and thrashing.
Five logs later a 15-pound cat struck at Andy Work's hand almost before he had put it in. Andy disengaged the varmint's teeth, threw it—along with a piece of his hand—into the boat, and again reached into the log to drag out a yellow. "This one's a real gentleman," he said approvingly as he held it aloft. "That other little bit of a fish nearly took my finger off."
"Oh, quit griping, Andy," said somebody. "Let's put him back in and let Andy catch him again," said Holcomb Black. Andy scowled accommodatingly. "And all we've got is three little ones," he grumbled, waving disdainfully at the bulging bag of catfish—enough to feed a man for a week.
"If we want a big un, we gotta let Tag catch it," said Bob McAlexander. "Hey, Tag. Come here, Tag." Tag Man-sell, a semiretired cotton farmer with an F.D.R. face and a chronic smile, looked up, smiled, stood up and dived headlong into a whole lumberyard of snags. "He's ready, ain't he?" hooted Doc, in exaggerated allusion to Tag's preparations with a bottle of corn likker. Tag gave a yell. "Is there a fish there?" asked Doc. "Or did you forget to take the corn?"
"Is there a fish here!" said Mansell. "Man, when I yell, you know something." From the other end of a log Lamar confirmed, "Something bit me." The something let go of Lamar and nibbled at Joe. "Sit on him," ordered Lamar. "He'll come out between man legs if I spraddle him thataway," spluttered Joe. Coming down to help, Bob nearly got his skull waffled by a set of colliding logs. "Gosh dang, what a woolly-bottomed bottom!" he exploded. He would have elaborated had not Tag suddenly heaved a 20-pound blue cat out of the log and rassled it into submission. When the blue had been boated, still gnashing its teeth and raking its spiny fins, Bob said, "You grabble pretty good for an old man." "I used to could," said Tag modestly.
Tag's grabble stood as the biggest of the day, although Andy punched a bigger one—maybe 40 pounds—out of a tied-down log chopped full of holes for catfish preferring apartment-style living. "You feel him real good, Lamar?" asked Joe. "Well, he was making about 30 miles an hour while I was feeling him," said Lamar bitterly.
Missing the monster changed the day's luck. Now every log was empty. "None of them fish is home," muttered Doc. Whatever the nature of their business elsewhere, all the fish had indeed disappeared. Soon the little boats seemed to be moving as slowly across the opaque, waxed-floor expanse of sienna water as the blister-raising sun was creeping across the hot white sky. A woodpecker drummed far across the drowned land. Red-winged blackbirds, almost extinct elsewhere but common as crows in this fecund tangle of watery jungle, called melodically. Off yonder a dog howled at his treed quarry. Two dead garfish floated by.
"Toss that white lightnin' over," commanded Doc. The throw was short. The bottle sank into 30 feet of water. "It's time to quit," Doc announced.
The terrible Tidwells
Marshall County has no lock on grabblers. In fact, some of the best grabblers in the entire state of Mississippi come from the next county south. And they come in a clan, with the name of Tidwell. When the Tidwells grabble, bull catfish climb up onto dry land and cottonmouths seek cover. Estimated to be 400 strong, Tidwells are as common as nails in Lafayette County and twice as tough. ("I can't tell you how many Tidwells there are in Lafayette County," says a local cracker-barrel sitter, "but I can tell you how many votes they have—73. They all go the same way, too. The way Alma Tidwell tells 'em.") Tidwells have been in north Mississippi since long before the Civil War. Where they came from and when, the Tidwells themselves disremember. It seems certain, however, that their arrival gave the Chickasaws an awful fright.
To meet one Tidwell is to recognize all Tidwells on sight. "You can tell us Tidwells by the whiskers, can't you?" said Hudie, indicating a characteristic stand of dense stubble. "That's why we're sech good grabblers. We let the fish latch onto those whiskers. No sense lettin' 'em bite your hand."
Alma, the clan leader, seldom talks and, in even-handed impartiality, he seldom hears. "That's why I come," explained Jesse, a grizzled old fellow of 67. "My boy, David Lee, can't swim and Alma, he's deaf. If David Lee went down, Alma couldn't hear him."
True to form, the Tidwells cranked off from a point known appropriately as Hurricane Landing and crossed three miles of open water to get at the densest tangle of cypress, ironwood, water oak, blue beech, button willow, vines and assorted impenetrable brush on all of jungly Sardis. "Good place for snakes," said Sid Wolfe, owner of an Oxford bait shop. "Fact is, there was one over us 'bout three feet on that bush we just went under. What kind? Cottonmouth. He dropped down and had himself a swim when we went past."
Old Jesse, belieing his excuse for coming, jumped in and stopped a hole in the first grabbleable log. "There's sumpin' in there," he declared. "If that ain't a fish, I'm damn badly fooled." It was two fish.
Floyd Tidwell, bespectacled with antique horn rims and hatted in a wide-brimmed old fedora blackened by many soakings, hauled in the next cat. Jesse held the 18 inches of it up for careful scrutiny. "It's a polliwog," he cried disdainfully.
A hairy fish
David Lee's complexion changed color when he stuck his bare feet into the next log. "Yip!" he yelped. "What hit my britches were not no fish. That fish had hair on him."
"If that beaver gets you through the foot," said Floyd, "that'll be all she wrote." "Outa my way," said Alma. "I'm gonna grabble that old beaver." Luckily for the cowering beaver, Alma, after 15 minutes of groping, admitted he couldn't reach it.
Alma took a fancy to another log and called for help in stopping it. A cotton-mouth undulated lazily through the water. "Know what he wants?" asked David Lee. "I'm not gonna get my feet et for you again. Ketch your own fish." "You gone goin' talking nuttyfied," Hudie reproved—unnecessarily, for there was no fish in residence.
At length Alma sighted the true object of his quest, an immense log, which all hands boarded. Instantly, a huge form catapulted from one end. The air around the leader of the Tidwells turned acrid. He gave his relatives to understand that that catfish had weighed at least 60 pounds and that he, Alma, was most unhappy about losing it.
"That one was too big, I didn't want that one," Floyd defended himself. "That was like trying to catch a cannonball. We'da needed a numba 3 washtub to catch that one." Agreed David Lee helpfully, "It would have taken at least four men to stop that hole."
Old granddaddy snake
A 30-minute pause to assess blame followed. When it ended, the granddaddy catfish having been chased off, a search began for the granddaddy snake. Hacking brush, paddling, poling through a jack-straw pile of logs, hauling on vines, the party pioneered the darkest reaches of Black Water, rejecting along the way a five-foot cottonmouth as too small and too shy.
"There he is," hissed David Lee. There he was, a seven-foot water moccasin as big around as a man's thigh, sunning on a log with just its head in the water.
Sid Wolfe whispered that even unprovoked moccasins were known to crawl into boats in search of victims. Jesse observed that poison from so big a snake would kill long before anyone could get out of Black Water. Floyd said no one had brought a gun. Alma said he was sure he could kill the moccasin with his paddle.
Up to the moccasin he paddled, everyone else hovering behind him, except Floyd, who furtively edged toward the stern seat. The snake raised its head, flicked its tongue and regarded its visitors unlovingly. Not yet in range, Alma raised his paddle high and let the boat drift slowly and quietly over the calm water toward the target. Deliberately, the moccasin slid down into the water. Then it surfaced six feet away and looked back—apprehensive as a catfish.