"They don't like the daylight," Powers said, "Bringing them into the daylight sets them off."
Powers, a native of Starr, was stating the obvious. On display in front of us were Powers' buddies, Gary Wayne Lewis of Iva and Jeff Simmons from Lake Secession. The two had their hands full with 50 pounds of angry flathead catfishly.
From our vantage point at the top of the boat ramp where Lewis and Simmons had just wrestled the big flathead out of a hole, it appeared that the two were trying to drown a wildcat.
In truth, it was the other way around.
Minutes earlier, we had beached Lewis' boat on the sandy shores of a local, lakeside campground near Hickory Knob State Park. It was mid morning on a Saturday, and several campers were enjoying the beach area around the ramp. Small children were playing in the water's edge, while mothers tended to them from beach chairs on the shoreline.
No one paid too much attention to Jeff and Gary Wayne when they began diving under the surface wearing scuba masks and feeling for holes or crevices under the ramp's concrete slab.
Mark and I knew something was up when we felt - not heard, but felt - a thunderous thumping against the underside of the boat ramp. Working with Jeff to nudge the fish to the edge of the hole, Gary Wayne finally got a stringer into its mouth and brought it out of the hole to the surface.
The result was similar to that scene from the movie "Jaws" when all the bathers turn and run out of the water as terrified mothers search the crowd for their children.
Nobody was going back in that water today. The fathers and older brothers weren't much help to the family, as most all of the men in the crowd - and even a few of the ladies - were crowding around, admiring the most beautiful, ugly fish that swims.
The 50-pound catfish ran almost the length of Lewis' body - from his shoulders to his knees. Both the fish and Lewis were gasping for air, and Mark and I came down to take hold of the wildcat's leash and secure it to the side of the boat.
What the campers witnessed is often referred to a "grabbing" or "noodling." The boys just call it fishin'.
Around mid-May, Powers, Lewis and Simmons start easing around the banks in the shallow waters of Lake Thurmond. About the time the water is warm enough for swimming, local flathead, blue and sometimes channel catfish move int shallow-water structure to begin the breeding and rearing process.
Larger catfish, especially the flatheads, seek out undercut areas for their nests. With a multitude of public, private, and semi-private boat ramps in the area, the boys have learned that cats will hollow out nests under the ramps' concrete slabs. Finding the cats is just a matter of holding your breath and feeling your way down the edge of the ramp, looking and feeling for burrows made by the catfish.
Catfish will tunnel some distance under the concrete slab and usually lay back out of harm's reach. Because of this, the boys have designed a unique "fishing pole" to get the job done. When a cat is back up deep in her lair, Gary Wayne and Jeff use a 10- to 15-foot section of half-inch PVC pipe. A quarter-inch nylon rope is inserted into the pipe, and a 12/0 treble hook is tied to the business end of the pole. The line is tied off on the other end by securing the bitter end of the line with a half-inch nut to serve as a line stop.
Since "snagging " any fish, game or non-game fish is illegal in South Carolina, they wrap a piece of spongy foam rubber around the hook. The foam rubber serves two purposes. First, it meets the requirements of "bait," making the pole legal. Second, the foam rubber also makes the big treble hook weedless while the pole is stuck up in a cavernous hole without it hanging on a rock.
Typically, more than one big female flathead will hide in a deep hole under a boat ramp. Finding them is a matter of probing deep into the lair with the pole. Tap a flathead on her nest once, and she gets mad; tap her again, and the end of the pole, the end with the hook attached, gets bit as the tries to tear the pole from your grasp.
With no room to move up or down to fight, the cat retreats to the far corner of her lair and can wedge her body in a crack. Experienced grabblers learn not to tie themselves to the pole or sure drowning will occur when a big cat anchors down. Usuall, two divers alternate between wiggling the stick and stomping on the cats'ceiling from above to get her to let go. Once loose, the cat will roll and thrust until she is hauled to the mouth of the lair.
It's at this point that Gary Wayne understands all too well the need to hold the fish still while one of the other divers runs a sturdy metal spike connected to a nylon stringer through the fish's mouth. Lewis attempted landing a particularly large flathead at the beginning of last season with out the stringer and received a memento for his trouble. His memento was a 12/0 treble hook impaled thru his abdominal wall and back out with a highly agitated 70-pound flathead hanging from the other two barbs.
He now uses a stringer to assist with bringing the cats to the surface rather than risk grabbing them around the head and wrestling them up. Being gut-hooked didn't stop Lewis from fishing. Like the famous Glouceshire fishermen of the Northeast, the boys side tracked to a local marina to find a hacksaw to cut the hook loose and get back to it.
Finding your own holes to arm-wrestle catfish is a matter of knowing where to look. The boys indicate that years of wave wash and fluctuating water levels make any solid-slab boat ramp a prime location, as catfish will burrow underneath the slab. The best holes will have piles of empty mussel shells littered around the opening where the catfish have dined on mussels and "processed" the shells.
Other areas that have been productive include bridge pilings, large rock outcroppings and areas where large "car hood -sized" rocks were used for rip rap. The boys also have found that they can make their own holes to grab catfish using 55 gallon drums.
While the boys have found that grabbing is mostly a flathead sport, it's not unusual to find blue or channel catfish in some of the holes. Powers said that "a blue catfish won't attack the pole like a flathead, but instead will run from the pole and have to be finessed to the entrance of the hole and grabbed by hand."
For this reason, it's important to have someone "blocking" side openings to the lair and even blocking the sides of the hole that's being worked.
"Sometimes, when they sense something's after them, the blues and even the flatheads will rocket out the hole," Lewis said. "We've been hit in the head, stomach, and even had our diving masks knocked ... by a fleeing catfish. Smaller ones don't hurt much. but taking a shot to the gut from a 40- to 50- pound catfish makes you think twice about what body part you put in front of the hole".