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Out There: Men of iron snatching cats

9/28/2004
A catfish snagger puts some backbone into the art of the snatch. 

In spring and early summer, they gather at the dams, standing shoulder to shoulder on the banks of big rivers. They come to fish; but to the uninitiated, their fishing seems foolhardy.

They use no bait. Their rods are extraordinarily long, unwieldy and heavy.

They cast huge weighted treble hooks far into the roiling water, then snatch them through the water with hard jerks that jar their bones.

It looks like work. It is.

Cast. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch.

Again. Cast. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch. Reel. Snatch.

They work the water with blind hope. They cannot see the fish they hope to catch. They do not know if the fish are even there.

They know they will come though, huge numbers of them, as they have come for centuries, drawn upstream on their instinctual spawning migrations. Perhaps they are there already. Perhaps not.

But come they will, sooner or later, in April or May or June. And when they stop at those concrete barricades, the snaggers will be there to greet them:

"How ya doing , ol' Whiskerpuss? I cannot see you, but sometime today, or this week, or this month, after one snatch or ten thousand, my hook will bury in your flesh and I will fight you and land you and take you home to eat.

"Until then, I will not be happy; I will not go away."

They are hardened men, these snaggers.

You will not find among their ranks the fat, the flabby or the out-of-shape. Their muscles are as hard and rippled as ironwood.

I have never, in 30 years among them, seen a woman or yuppie in the mix. Farmers, yes, and carpenters, steel workers, factory laborers and river rats — hardened individuals, accustomed to back-breaking work. No wussies here.

The belly is their one weak spot, if their tackle is an indicator, for covering the butt of each long rod is a split rubber ball used to soften the gouging their undersides must take.

With each yank, the rod digs and the snagger winces. At day's end, they may be black and blue from the breast to the groin.

On a good day, if Lady Luck shines upon them, and their rod doesn't break, and their reel doesn't burn up, if a big cat doesn't spool them off, if the water is just so, and the catfish are there, and if all else goes well, maybe, just maybe, they'll have a catfish or two to show for their labor. Then again, maybe not.

I became a snagger for a while. Had to try it myself. Stood shoulder to shoulder with the tough guys, throwing two 8-ounce snagging hooks with a 16-foot surf rod.

Learned to cast 100 yards, sometimes more. Learned to stand there hour after hour, casting, reeling, snatching, until I blackened my gut with bruises and could not turn the reel handle another revolution.

Once I snagged a catfish. It was, perhaps, the biggest I ever had on rod and reel. It spooled off 200 yards of 50-pound mono in less than a minute. I never turned its head.

I wept. I quit. "Wussy," they said.

Snagging is a tough way to catch catfish. But in some states where the sport is legal, it appears to be growing in popularity.

In my home state of Arkansas, below each of the 12 dams on the Arkansas River, you will find on a nice spring day scores of snaggers flailing the water, where just a few years before there were none. Why?

I cannot say, for sure, but I believe it has something to do with the extraordinary challenge of it all.

In today's world, people are looking for challenges. Skiing down Mount Everest. Jumping motorcycles across canyons. Skydiving. Competing in the Iron Man and Iditarod. Pushing the limits of human endurance and sanity.

Snaggers fit the mold. They see something that can't be done by normal human standards, and they decide they must do it. In the doing, they become addicted.

Sweat and burning muscles fuel their fires. Doing things the easy way isn't in their nature. That is why a shade-loving, bank-sitting wussy like me will never be a snagger.

In some areas, the term snagging is seldom used.

"Snatching" is a common moniker; some folks prefer the term "blind-jerking." Whatever you call it, however, wherever it is done, snagging works along the same basic lines.

Typical equipment consists of a 10- to 16-foot, heavy-action saltwater rod and a large-capacity bait-casting or spinning reel spooled with 50- to 130-pound line.

Two or three 8/0 to 14/0, needle-sharp treble hooks are tied tandem on the line, and a heavy weight is used to sink the hooks in swift tailwaters. Once on bottom, the rig is jerked through the water until it hits a snag or a fish.

Hundreds of casts may be made before a hook connects with a catfish.

At times, the method is totally unproductive. I've also sat and watched snaggers catch catfish on every cast, including blues and flatheads to 80 pounds. Timing is everything. When catfish numbers peak in dam tailwaters, usually in spring or early summer, snagging is best.

When the efforts pay off and a catfish is on, there's plenty of exciting, white-knuckle action for the fortunate angler.

If the catfish is tail-hooked, as often happens, the battle may be the most action-packed you've ever experienced. If it happens to be a big cat as well, you're in for a rough-and-tumble ride.

I've seen many snaggers bury the hook in something solid, what seemed like a log, and watched their astonishment when that log decided to swim away and take their gear with it.

Mystery makes snagging fun, the mystery of wondering what will be hooked next.

Sometimes it's a big paddlefish or buffalo. Often as not, however, it's a catfish the snagger snags, and even a 10-pounder puts up a whale of a fight when hooked this way.

In Arkansas, many snaggers use an unusual type of battery-powered reel to lessen the amount of work required.

Constructed from hand-machined parts and connected to a 6-volt lawnmower battery, these reels have a button affixed to the rod handle that can be depressed with the angler's thumb.

The snagging rig is cast, the angler takes up slack and makes his snatch, then the button is pushed to automatically reel up slack line before the next snatch. No turning of a reel handle is needed, thus the snagger's speed and efficiency are greatly improved.

When these newfangled contraptions first started popping up a few years ago, they caused quite an uproar.

People who saw snaggers with large batteries at their feet believed the snaggers might have created some new method of illegal electroshocking.

Wildlife officers were barraged by phone calls from folks reporting these apparent lawbreakers. The devices are so commonplace now, however, the furor has died down.

If snagging is legal where you fish, or if you're willing to travel some spot where it is, then perhaps you might want to give it a try. Then again, maybe not.

Like I said, this is not a sport for fat, flabby or out-of-shape catters.

If your idea of a fun outing is kicking back in the shade and taking a nap till a cat bites, snagging isn't likely to tickle your fancy.

But if you enjoy a challenge, if sweat and burning muscle fuel your fire, then maybe snagging can provide a new way to liven your days on the water.

As for me, I'll be content just to watch.

Snagging is too much like work, and in my mind, work and fishing shouldn't be mixed.

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net