HILTONS, Va. — When Tony Gibson goes fishing, he don’t need no stinking pole.
“I’ve enjoyed using a rod and reel from time to time,” Gibson said. “But it’s not like getting bit.”
And getting bit is where it’s at for Gibson and a long line of his Scott County kin.
Some have called it Hillbilly Handfishin’, but today’s proper term is “noodling.”
“Before I ever did it — I started age 12 or 13 — my granddad called it ‘gravelin’,’ ” Gibson said.
Whatever the label, catching catfish (or other critters) with bare hands is hardly for the timid.
“Once you get bit that first time, if you’re an adrenaline junkie, it’s addictive,” said Gibson, 42. “I’m not gonna lie. It’s addictive.”
Gibson, who typically toils in the building stone industry but will make a buck in carpentry or roofing or tree work or whatever is available at a given moment, has noodled for many years.
“I’ve done it all my life, brother,” he said. “It’s a family tradition, passed down. My granddad (Junior Gibson) did it, my dad (Tim Gibson) did it. My uncles and cousins have all done it.
“Far back as I can remember, I’m going to the river. We just grew up doing it, like deer hunting and squirrel hunting. There’s just something about it.”
NO TIME TO BE SCARED
Not every Gibson takes to noodling like this father of four. Surely, a few have opted out.
“I’m sure some have,” Gibson said. “But I’ve got a cousin who got bit by a muskrat under the bank one time and it took the very tip of his finger off, and he’s been back. So ...
“I guess some of us are maybe more wild and crazy than some of the others.”
Still, there must be turtles, living head-first inside air pockets within those muddy banks.
“I try not to mess with turtles,” Gibson said. “A snapping turtle won’t bite but once — but he may take a finger in the process. If you feel a snapper’s tail or back foot when you reach into a bank, you better grab on soon as you mess with him. Give him time to turn around and you’re bit.
“Now one of those soft-shell turtles, he’s more like a Gatling gun. He’s gonna bite you as many times and he can strike at you. They’re rough and they can turn their heads around halfway down their backs. They don’t have the punch of a snapping turtle, but they’re really mean.”
And what about the dreaded serpent, the one that goes back to the Garden of Eden?
“Snakes are always an option, brother,” Gibson said. “I’ve even seen ’em fall out of trees onto people. But it’s nothing major. Just an ol’ water snake. Nothing’s going to happen.”
The time to noodle is when catfish are spawning, during late spring or early summer, depending upon that season’s particular weather pattern and amount of rainfall.
“When cats go on the nest, they go into holes in the bank or in a pile of rocks or a downed log or even a barrel in the water or an old tire —anything dark, where they feel safe,” Gibson said.
Noodling is legal in about 15 states, most of which are in the South. Tennessee is on that list, but Gibson said it may be legal in Virginia only during the autumn, well after cats have spawned.
Targeting catfish on the nest is the essence of noodling.
“They lay their eggs in these dark places and then usually the male will stay and guard them,” Gibson said. “Sometimes when they first go on the nest you can find two in a hole. But you try not to keep the females. Now the males, they’re generally a whole lot rougher to handle than females. And the blue cats, they are by far the meanest of the ones we have around here.
“A channel cat is a channel cat, but a blue cat — a lot of people call them blue channels — is a blue cat. Blue cats are not native. They were introduced. And then you have a flathead. A lot of people call them a mud cat or a yellow cat. Flatheads are more of a predator fish.”
FORGET THE POLE
When the cats are nesting, there’s not much use in traditional fishing methods.
“There’s one cove at (Fort) Patrick Henry (Lake) that I hit pretty regular and there’s usually people fishing it,” Gibson said. “I don’t like to cause a big commotion, but if you get ahold of one — especially when you get it on a stringer and it’s flopping and carrying on — it draws attention.
“This one time I was there and an older man was fishing with his grandson. I caught one right off the bat and the man said, ‘Catch one?’ Not wanting to be rude and say nothing to him, I kinda said, ‘Yeah.’ So then I caught another one and it was the same thing — ‘You using a pole?’ he asked, and I told him, ‘No sir.’ So then I caught a third one, and that did him in. He reeled in those lines and here they come, asking how I was doing that. And I told him I was using my hand. He said, ‘Let me see those fish,’ and I held up that stringer. Well, he went all to pieces.
“ ‘We haven’t caught a thing!’ the man said, and I told him, ‘You won’t. They’re on the nest.’ ”
Gibson doesn’t hog the water, either. Surprisingly, he sometimes practices catch-and-release.
“I’m doing it for fun half the time,” he said. “So, sometimes I turn ’em loose to swim again.”
Unlike the generations before him, Gibson has pretty much moved his noodling expeditions from the river to the lake — in particular, the TVA waters of Patrick Henry.
“It’s one of those deals where every few days I’m in the lake checking to see if they’re coming on(to) the nest, to see if they’re cleaning out holes,” Gibson said. “I know the holes there, and if you’ve pulled a catfish out of a hole before, you’ll likely find another one there this year.”
Once located, catfish suddenly become the hunter instead of the hunted.
“They are protecting those eggs back in them holes and it doesn’t matter what threatens them, they are going to be aggressive in attacking it,” Gibson said. “The males — especially the blue ones — will usually let you know that you shouldn’t be in there.
“And you do not have to get way back in that hole. Those males are mean, and if you just start into that hole with your hand, he’s going to be very aggressive and is gonna light you up.”
BIG, MEAN CATS
Gibson has “noodled” three flatheads over 20 pounds, as well as a personal best blue cat.
“The biggest one I ever caught was a blue one — the water was down a tad and I’d seen him the day before,” Gibson said. “But I didn’t realize just how big he was until I got ahold of him.
“What we could get on the scale was 29 pounds, and part of him was still hanging off the scale, so he was probably over 30 pounds. When I was holding him up he was 36 inches and in the picture you could see blood running down my arm.
“They just don’t bite. They’re twisting and turning and getting you everywhere. Most times you’re gonna have some blood. I’ve seen one of those blue catfish peel the skin off Dad’s fingers.”
A man’s got to watch out for the blue ones.
“The blue ones will hurt you,” Gibson said. “Especially in water that’s chest-high. You get a hold of a 50-pounder in water nearly over your head, you’re asking for it. He’s all muscle and you’re on his turf, and things can happen very quickly.
“I’ve got a hold of blue ones and thought, ‘I’m fixin’ to get my hand broke. I can’t get loose from him and he’s getting tighter and tighter.’ But, the good Lord above, no broken bones so far.”
BE HOME SOON, HONEY
Many times, Gibson will bring home a mess of catfish and play chef for his wife and children.
“I’ll usually chunk it up and fry it in some kind of Cajun batter and fix some fries or something with it,” Gibson said. “I’m not sure my granddad would ever have eaten a french fry. And the old timers didn’t deep fry catfish. They always fried it up in an iron skillet.”
After many years with Tony Gibson, wife Jody may at times figure it’s best to stay out of his way.
“In the spring I count the days until catfish go on the nest and then in the fall I count ’em till I’m up in that (deer) stand,” he said. “Two things that drive the wife crazy — catfish and deer.”
Meanwhile, Jody Lane-Gibson will wait to hear about that really big fish her husband so covets.
“Big fish like big water, and there’s another cove on Patrick Henry — I don’t want to give away secrets — there underneath the bridge on 81,” Gibson said. “When they shot that road, all of those boulders rolled down into that lake — some as big as cars, falling on top of each other.
“You find a cat in one of those holes, chances are he’ll be a really big fish. I’ve not found one in there yet, but I look religiously because I know at any moment, I’m apt to run my arm in there and get a hold of that 60- or 80-pound flathead. If that ever happens, brother, it’ll be a wild ride.”