handgrabing art

Fishermen of all ages enjoy putting their hands on catfish whose full size can only be truly appreciated once they’re out of the water.

A fishing tournament two months long has entered its fourth year of existence and continues to give new generations of enthusiasts the opportunity to make catching catfish a hands-on experience.

The Mississippi Handgrabbers Association’s Statewide Handgrabbing Tournament and Big Fish Bounty opened May 1 and continues through June 23. Registration will remain open through June 23, but fishermen must have tags in hand to officially weigh in fish at the weigh-in sites, which are in several locations around the state.

All proceeds from the tournament are divided among the group’s college scholarship program, funding for hunting and fishing experiences for veterans through Wounded Warriors of Mississippi, and for similar experiences for critically ill youngsters through the Catch-A-Dream Foundation. Registration takes place online at mshga.com.

Motivation to hold the tournament formed over a period of years for the group’s founder, beginning with his first experience fishing by hand.

“The first fish I ever caught by hand was a 45-pound white cat that just slammed me,” said Dwain Brister, MHA President, who was introduced to the game by an uncle. “From then on, every time the truck cranked to go, I was there. I want everyone who will to try it. People are always amazed once they do.” Nearly 20 years later, he and his friends 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. Networking opportunities across family and county lines have generally been few, but the Mississippi Handgrabbers Association Season Tournament and Big Fish Bounty has made great strides toward changing that.

“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.”

In the years since, he and his friends have seen such crowds triple or more, but their hope for the pursuit’s growth aims higher still.

In the beginning

“When I got started there was really nothing in the state, organization-wise, for hand grabbers,” Brister said. “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.”

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.”

The weeks-long, statewide nature of the tournament is meant to give every participant plenty of opportunity to put their best fish forward. Official check stations have been established at weigh-in sites across the state, all using certified scales, and the weigh-in proceeds at the fishing’s natural pace over the length of the tournament.

“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 are encouraged to bring in their biggest fish as they catch 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 enjoy a similar system that gives them five opportunities to weigh their heaviest fish over the course of the season, allowing them to get a heavy fish on the board then try to better it, rather than releasing one big fish in hopes of catching something bigger. Participants may enter in teams or as individuals, and may enter the tournament or the big fish bounty or both.

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