Grabble fishing, at least as practiced in East Texas, is a sport that requires steely nerves and such a hunger for a fish dinner that it overcomes the fear of those "other" things lurking beneath the quiet backwaters of creeks and stock ponds. Grabble fishing is not practiced as openly as it used to be. It is now frowned upon by game wardens, and grab-biers grabble at their own peril. Today, if you are caught in the act and brought to justice, your hoped-for dinner will cost you from $10 to $200, depending on the judge.
"And well it should," says game warden Jim Riggins. "Grabble fishing is not a sport. It's dangerous and, besides, there's no telling how many thousands of potential fish are destroyed by grabblers. That is the main reason it is prohibited. The reason the fish are back under the banks in those holes in the first place is to spawn. After the eggs are laid, the males go in to 'fan' them and, while they are at work, they don't stand a chance if a grabbler bothers them."
But back when I was a follower of my big brother in Scroggins. Franklin County, grabble fishing flourished. Game wardens hadn't even been heard of in those parts of the piney woods.
Strong arms, like those attached to gorillas, are a great asset in grabbling. Perch and catfish and those "other" things hide themselves in deep, cool holes up under the banks of the creeks and stock ponds. Pole fishing for them is an impossible dream. The only way to take home a mess of fish was to grabble them out. The steely nerves are for plunging your arms and hands into those holes.
As a spectator sport, nothing, not even a Super Bowl, can top the excitement and show that grabblers put on. Some float on their backs with just their noses showing, their arms rammed into the bank up to their armpits. Some stand on their heads, their legs scissoring to keep their balance. Others disappear beneath the surface, where they remain for long minutes. On shore, grabbler watchers roll on the ground laughing until their bellies ache.
Those "other" things are what produce the excitement. Near Mount Pleasant, a northeasterly neighbor of Scroggins, there lived a lay preacher who was an avid grabbler, ordained of God. One day he dived into a creek and was under so long the bank watchers started worrying. Suddenly he broke water like a blowing whale and yelled, "Tell George to get a plowline. I gotta big 'un."
The preacher took the line under, and the water quieted for almost two minutes. Then the water heaved and boiled and he emerged, towing a huge moss-backed turtle with his left hand. He held his right hand aloft, like the Statue of Liberty, and it was spurting blood. The turtle had snapped his thumb off at the joint.
You never had to go out very deep, though, and nobody around Scroggins probably ever saw a kid wear a swimsuit. Nobody would have ever thought of wearing protective gloves either. Mostly we just jumped or waded in the water in our coveralls, or just plain took 'em off and went in stark naked. The catfish, perch or whatever lurked near bushes or in mudholes or under rocks not far from shore, and we learned to stick our fingers in a fish's gill soon as we grabbed it, otherwise you got "finned." which is painful. Then you tossed whatever you grabbed on the bank, hoping what you had grabbed really was a fish. There was yet another way of grabbling that involved making a sort of Molotov cocktail for the fish. What you did was get yourself a fruit jar and punch a hole in the lid. I think it was lime, or some substance like lime that the kids put into the fruit jar. When the jar hit the water, the stuff created a gas and the glass would explode. The idea here was to stun the fish, but even when I was little it didn't seem a very fair way of grabbling.
My big brother Ray was a topnotch grabbler. That is, he was until one hot summer day after crops were laid by.
Ray and his gang liked to grabble the stock pond that nested at the foot of the sand-hill farm Papa sharecropped near Winnsboro. On this particular day Ray was riding a pine log in a little inlet and giving a hole under some brush a real workout. Things were quiet until a yell split the humid air.
"Man!" Ray whooped. "I've got two of 'em!"
Slowly, he withdrew his arm, careful not to fall off the log or lose his catch. As he brought his catch above the surface, he was eyeball to eyeball with a cottonmouth moccasin doubled up in a tightly clenched fist, its tail beating the air.
For a long, paralyzing moment Ray gazed into the sinister black eyes and at the darting tongue. Then, with a toss like a discus thrower, he flung the moccasin from him. It coiled through the air like a piece of dirty rope, splashed into the murky water and disappeared in a boiling froth.
Ray fell off his pine log and skimmed the 25 yards to the opposite shore. If that swim had been stopwatched, it would have set a record that would be standing till this day.
That cottonmouth catch made a former grabbler out of Ray, and also his buddies. Grabbling in the sand-hill stock pond ceased, and it didn't take a warning from a game warden, either.