I stepped carefully into a small, black bass boat with four near strangers, one of them offering his hand to guide me into the vessel as it rocked on the dirty, brown surface of Lake Keystone. It occurred to me as I boarded that I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d never seen any of the documentaries or reality TV shows that exploit the forays of catfish noodlers—so-called “hillbilly handfishers”—but I’d seen a couple of reporters I knew (or knew of) try it out on the local news and I thought, “Hey, I could do that.”
But as the boat began to float away from the rocky shore, I wasn’t so sure.
I made small talk with my two new friends, Lacie and Tess—both young, pretty, chatty—thanking them for letting me tag along on their adventure and feeling a little guilty for crashing their party. Then I sized up our guides: one a ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers, the other a biologist with the Wildlife Department. “Huh,” I thought, as we chatted about the effort they’d put in to preparing for our little excursion, “they’re smart.”
The pair, Travis and Matt, had spent the previous night and half of that day scouting holes along the shoreline—“running bank,” they called it—looking for catfish that we could catch. When they found one, they blocked the hole with a rock, ensuring it’d still be there when we arrived later. After a few minutes of high speeds across the open water, we slowed and approached a rockstrewn bank, then nervously disembarked, our bodies sinking halfway into the water before we found our footing on the jagged floor below.
Lacie would go first, we decided. Matt, who would have been blonde if he hadn’t shaved his head bald, and whose smooth, sculpted back was a semi-permanent shade of reddish-brown—the side effect of a life spent outdoors—explained to her that he’d hold her hand as they went under water, just to help her find the fish’s hidey hole. It would then be up to her to grab the cat by its bottom lip and drag it to the surface.
We were all a little skeptical when she went under, but she emerged 30 seconds later, her right hand still inside the mouth of a 10-pound—no, make it 12—beast, her left arm wrapped around its belly, her curly hair matted and her face aglow with the victory of capture on her first try.
The men “strung it up,” puncturing the bottom of its jaw with a sharp, fat needle and then securing it with a shoelace-sized rope.
Next, it was Tess’ turn, and she too caught a fish on her first attempt, this one closer to 20 pounds and double the girth of the first.
Matt turned to me, flashing a wide smile that revealed a straight row of perfect white teeth. “You ready?”
I said yes—I lied—and positioned myself on his right side. He took my hand and together we drew in a long breath and let our bodies sink to the bottom of the lake. I didn’t tell anyone, but I hadn’t held my breath underwater since I was 12 years old, and I was more afraid of drowning than I was of what I would find when I reached blindly into that dark hole.
Matt guided my hand along the top of a flat rock, and below it was an opening. I reached inside and felt something slick and slimy and I immediately pushed off from the rock and thrust my head above water, coughing and rubbing my eyes. (Why had I worn mascara??)
“I felt it!” I gasped, and the others laughed. I went back under, Matt’s hand guiding mine again, but this time I didn’t feel anything. I couldn’t find it.
I came up again, and Matt told me I needed to lie down on the bottom of the lake, either on my side or my stomach, and reach all the way into the hole. I tried, and my hand brushed against the fish, but he was too far out of reach, even with half my shoulder wedged under the rock.
Matt tried, and he couldn’t reach it either, which made me feel a little bit better, so he grabbed a fishing pole from the boat while our other guide blocked the hole with his foot.
Using the pole, he pulled the fish closer to us, so it was within reach, and when we went under again I felt its head under my right hand. I let my hand slide down the monster’s nose and into its mouth. I grabbed its bottom lip—its “teeth”—rough like sand paper, and closed my fist around it, pulling the beast toward me. It was heavy, and I pulled again, dragging it out of its hiding spot, wrapping my left arm around its middle, feeling it thrash and bite my fingers as we broke the surface of the water.
I squealed and smiled and yelled and yeehawed, ecstatic at my catch—a 25-pounder (OK, 28), the biggest one of the day so far. I couldn’t believe what I’d just done, and I was already craving another go.
On my next attempt, which my guides told me would have me going after a smaller but feistier fish, I let Matt take me under the water, and I found the fish right away.
I reached inside a smaller hole, in a spot where the water was shallower, and felt the fish glide under my palm. I tried to grab it, searching for its snout, but I came up empty handed, my body still crouched in front of the hole, blocking my prey’s escape.
Matt had moved away from me. I was doing this on my own, I’d decided, without really deciding. I furrowed my brow in stern determination and held my breath. My hands searched the water and again, I brushed the fish with my fingertips but couldn’t grasp it. I kicked my feet in frustration as I reached farther into the hole. When I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, I rose to the surface, still trapping the animal inside.
I didn’t wait long before going under again, but as soon as I reached out, I felt the fish glide beneath my belly and out of the hole, its tail flicking me in defiance as it made its escape to freedom.
I cursed when I came up for air, but really, I wasn’t bothered too much that he got away. I was proud at having taken control of my catch, at having the confidence to do it on my own. I got a few well-deserved pats on the back and “’atta girls” after climbing aboard the boat and I accepted them contentedly, unable to contain my wide, open-mouthed smile.
We were done for the evening—and for the season; the flathead catfish, which are the only ones the law allows you to take home and eat after you catch them, would finish spawning soon and vacate their underwater caves. The sun was beginning to set and we could see the dock from our perch across the lake. We’d each had two tries, and while only Lacie had caught two fish, we were all triumphant and glowing, less because we’d caught a few fish and more because we’d done it with our hands, without really knowing if we could do it at all. We’d done it in spite of our fears, and we’d conquered something our friends and families told us we were crazy for even attempting.
And, yes, we’d done it in makeup.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3, Issue 18. Sept. 15, 2012.