Hands full: Grabbling tournament weighs first year

Jody Stegall of Grenada claimed the big fish bounty with a flathead that weight in at 66.6 pounds. (Courtesy)

Jody Stegall of Grenada claimed the big fish bounty with a flathead that weight in at 66.6 pounds. (Courtesy)

By Kevin Tate

Outdoors Writer

The first time Dwain Brister laid hands on a catfish in the latter’s home depths he was pulled, yanked, twisted – and hooked. Nearly 20 years later, he and his friends have launched a statewide mission to share the adrenaline rush that makes such an experience one many can’t wait to do again.

Known by a variety of terms, the practice of locating big catfish in their underwater lairs, engaging them in hand-to-mouth combat and hauling them topside is a passion for many, but one without much of a support network in our state. Grabbing or grabbling, as it’s typically known here, has been a tradition sold by word of mouth and passed along from mentor to apprentice and friend to friend.

“My uncle got me into hand grabbing 19 years ago,” Brister, from McComb, said. “The excitement is all about the hunt of the fish. Back then, though, if we saw five other boats in a weekend hand grabbing on Ross Barnett Reservoir, we thought it was crowded.

“When I got started there was really nothing in the state, organization-wise, for hand grabbers. Several of us down here that fished together started calling ourselves the Mississippi Handgrabbers Association just for fun, and we talked a lot about doing something official, about taking the group statewide.”

Family tradition

When Brister’s uncle and hand grabbing mentor passed away, he was spurred to action.

“I’d talked with him a lot about launching a statewide organization,” Brister said. “When he died, I decided it was either time to act, or time to forget about it and move on, to just let the idea go. I decided to act. Each year, at the beginning of the season, we dedicate the first fish caught to his memory. I dedicate this association to him and the other great hand grabbers who have passed down their knowledge to us so that their legacy and this way of life can be passed down for generations to come.”

He and his friends made their group’s name official and launched a statewide tournament and big fish bounty that ran much of the duration of the past hand grabbing season, which closed July 15, in a format that gave every participant plenty of opportunity to put their best fish forward. Official check stations were established at weigh-in sites across the state, all using certified scales, and the tournament ran its course over several weeks.

“Everybody’s got their own honey hole,” Brister said. “By doing it that way, everyone could fish their own turf and just focus on getting the biggest fish they could to the scales.”

Tournament entrants were encouraged to bring in their biggest fish as they caught them, not necessarily all on the same day, eventually accumulating the weights of their five largest to comprise their tournament string. Big fish bounty entrants enjoyed a similar system.

Participants could enter in teams or as individuals, and they could enter the tournament or the big fish bounty or both. In all, 1,172 pounds of fish were weighed in by contestants spread across the state. The big fish bounty went to Jody Stegall, from Grenada, with a winning weight of 66.6 pounds, edging out the next closest entrant by 17 ounces.

Passing it on

First place in the tournament went to Team Mississippi, from Madison, with a total stringer of 255.68 pounds. Second place was claimed by Sean Adkins, from Utica, with 197.8 pounds, and third went to the team Mississippi’s Finest, from Grenada, with a weight of 157.7 pounds.

Brister says this past tournament is just the beginning. The association has been marketing itself through social media and at wildlife expos and will continue to do so. To learn more about the group, visit mshga.com.