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Advice From An Expert: ‘If You’ve Never Been Grabbling, You Need To Try It’

Tommy Hill holds a yellow cat that weighed around 60 pounds. The fish is one of hundreds that he has pulled from the dark, murky waters while grabbling.

The dark, murky waters in Mississippi have always  seemed ominous and sinister to me. In the swamps and lakes of the Delta, I just knew anything could be lurking  there, ready to grab whatever intruded. I wasn’t far from being correct either, and that’s what attracts grabblers.

They know what’s in those dark, murky waters, and it’s  great sport to go after it.

I was on the edge of my chair as Tommy Hill told me some of his escapades in the waters of Enid Lake, Wasp Lake, Lake George, and other lakes in the Delta.

So, pull up a chair and listen to Tommy:

My daddy grabbled when he was coming up. He’d come  home with a big ole catfish. He’d chop his head off with an ax and skin ‘im; then he’d go down each side and chop chunks out of ‘im. My daddy and my brothers, Dean, Edwin Earl, Billy Jack, and Jerry, all grabbled. Then my brothers got me started when I was 12.

I’ll never forget that day on Sardis Lake. It was May 1st, but it was frost on the ground, and we like to froze to death. We had big ole dark raincoats we put on over our wet clothes to warm up a little. I was the littlest, so every time we came upon a log with a knot-hole, they’d  tell me, ‘Stick your hand in there Tommy’.

So, Tommy got home that day with skinned hands and half-frozen, but he was already thinking about his next trip.

He continued:

We thought it was an honor to come up with our hand and arm all tore up. You weren’t a man unless you came back all skinned up.

One day, Billy Jack stuck his foot in a log, now he was  barefooted, and a big one clamped down on it and wouldn’t let go. We were all yelling, “Pull ‘im out; pull ‘im out,” and Billy Jack was yelling, “Y’all gotta help me. He’s holding on to me.’ His whole leg was skinned up, but we got that one.

Tommy explained the difference between the yellow cat and the blue fish:

The Yellow is called the flathead; the Blue has a big  head and is mean; it won’t give up.

At Lake George, we made a box about 12 inches at one  end, and it flared out to 30 inches or more, and my son, Tom, got in and stuck his toe in the gills of a big ole cat and pulled ‘im out. It was big enough that we had to run a rope through a hole between his gills. We have caught’em where they already had a hole, and we knew they’d been caught before.

One day Billy Jack was with me, and we caught fish out of a sunken log. We went back two days later and stopped the log up with sacks of hay. It was solid on one end and opened up on top. I sat on the end where the sack was and ran a stick in the log. I started telling Billy Jack, “That don’t feel like a fish.” About that time, I glanced around, and that thing had come out around the sack right at me. It was a cotton-mouth as big around as my arm, and it was mad. The boat was about 10 feet away, and I started swimming—the cotton-mouth right behind me. I was yelling to Billy Jack, “Get a stick; get a stick.” He was able to hit its head when it was about a foot from me. I was nervous when I got in the water for a long time after that.

Then one day, down in the Delta where the cypress trees compete with the giant redwoods, Tommy and his buddies had another cliffhanger:

It was Wolf Lake, and we found a huge tree where the water was only 3-4 feet deep with a hole on each side of it. I bet that tree was 200 years old. One of the guys stopped up one of the holes, and Little Terry Allen said, “I want this one,” and jumped in. He went under the water and through the hole to the inside. The guys were still poking with sticks, saying, ‘There’s one in there.’

Inside the tree the hollow was about 10 feet across, and an alligator surfaced right in his face. He started yelling and screaming, “There’s a ……. alligator in here! I’m telling you there’s an alligator in here.’ He got out ok, and that kept us laughing all day.

Terry Allen, Jr., “Little Terry” gave me his own version of this episode:

I got inside that tree and kept feeling around and feeling around, and then I saw this long, dark shell float to the top and them big ole green eyes looking right at me. It was about six feet long, and I didn’t wanna be in that hole with ‘im. It was hard gettin in but easy gettin out.

Then he told me about his cousin Jamie Allen. “Me and my cousin Jamie were out at Enid Lake, and Jamie stuck his leg up in a hollow log, and a snapping turtle was in there.” I said, “Oh my gosh, did it bite him?” “Naw, I think it was scared of Jamie. Jamie could stay under water so long his nickname was Aqua Lungs. Sometimes he’d go down with a lit cigarette in his mouth and come back up, and the cigarette would still be in his mouth.”

Tommy continues:

One day my nephew, Waylon, and me put a boat in at Enid at the Wild Cat launch. It was full of hollow logs.  So, we caught fish in a log, and two or three days later, we went back, and fish had laid eggs in it. We didn’t get out of the boat but packed a sack in one end and stuck a  cane inside. We pulled it out and it was crushed. I said, ‘That’s a mean fish,’ and we stuck it in again, and it came out crushed again. I said, ‘That’s got to be a turtle.’ We poked at ‘im until we got ‘im to stick his head out. That thing’s head was as big as a sorghum bucket!

Tommy could have talked for hours, but Sage Grass is only a column, so we had to cut it short. But, one thing for sure, grabbling stories won’t leave any fence-straddlers. It’s either exciting fun, or too dangerous to try. However, Tommy said all of his scars are healed, and he has some good memories, but he doesn’t grabble anymore. I asked if he ever goes just to watch. He said “No, if I go, I want to get in there with ‘em.” His parting advice, “If you’ve never been grabbling, you need to try it.”

Hand grabbling has been a family affair for the Hills. Tom Hill and Tommy Hill hold an 80-pounder they pulled from the water with their hands.

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