May 2006 18 / OutdoorIllinois May 2006 OutdoorIllinois / 19
alleged weight nearly matched the state
record. In the photo, he looked small com-pared
with the catfish.
“And where did you catch it?” I contin-ued.
“Rend Lake, somewhere,” he said, fid-geting.
“And this was on a trotline? Rod and
“I was hogging,” he replied.
I nearly dropped my pencil.
For those unfamiliar with the ancient
art of bare-handed fishing, “hogging,” as
the man called it, or “noodling,” or “grap-pling,”
are terms used to describe the
perfectly legal technique of locating and
pulling catfish out of the water with only
one’s bare hands. What’s more, in order
to perform this plunge of faith, brave fish-
Some years ago I worked for a
small-town newspaper where I
wrote articles about local
events considered important
enough to make the front page
of rural Illinois newspapers. Whenever a
local gardener produced a 3-pound car-rot,
for example, or when a shopper
found a peach resembling a president
among a crate of otherwise ordinary
peaches, I was the reporter who’d pick
up a staff camera, race to the scene of
the local excitement, and claim the story
for the evening newspapers. It really was
a tremendous job.
One day in early summer a tall man
lumbered into the newspaper office hold-ing
a photograph he’d taken of himself.
“Here,” he said politely, towering
above my desk, “I thought you might want
to run this in the newspaper.”
I glanced at the submitted image,
which included the gargantuan man
before me and a flathead catfish of
absolutely unbelievable size.
“Well now,” I smiled, straightening up
in my chair. “What have we here?”
I picked up my pencil and prepared to
break the story.
“It weighed...how much?” I began the
interview as the man shifted uncomfortably.
“Seventy-three pounds,” he replied.
The guy was twice my size. I saw no rea-son
not to believe him, even though the
Story By Joe McFarland
Photos By Adele Hodde
erman must first slide a hand into the
fish’s gaped mouth, allow the fish to
chomp down, then haul the angry catfish
out of the water.
I stared again at the photograph, then
glanced up at the giant man.
“Seventy-three pounds,” I said, shak-ing
my head. “From Rend Lake. And
where, exactly did you manage to...?”
He interrupted with a request.
“Don’t print where I caught it in Rend
Lake,” he suggested, leaning over to read
my handwriting. “Just say, ‘Rend Lake,’ if
you don’t mind.”
I didn’t mind. A fisherman needs to
keep certain secrets—and he made a
very convincing argument simply by
standing over me. I felt like a quarterback
staring up at the linebacker who’d just
sacked him senseless. Images of myself
with black eyes and missing teeth flashed
in my mind, along with the inevitable
headline: Local Reporter Still Hospitalized
Following Bad Decision.
“Sure thing,” I agreed cheerfully, delib-erately
writing “somewhere in Rend Lake”
for his eyes to witness.
If fishermen in general reveal no
secrets, catfish hoggers are far more
secretive, for one reason: Their secret
fishing holes are exactly that—underwater
cavities which never move, and therefore
should never be revealed.
Unlike many Illinois gamefish, which
spawn in shallow water along shorelines,
catfish spawn in natural hollows such as
undercut creek banks or submerged, hol-low
logs. Spawning occurs when water
temperatures hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit,
typically between June and July. Instinc-tively,
catfish will move into these familiar
cavities and remain there, guarding the
home even as a daring human hand
reaches into the hole to feel around.
The fact any fish would allow a human
to touch it might seem puzzling. But what’s
really surprising is the sex of these fish.
Little Grassy Fish Hatchery Manager
Alan Brandenburg said catfish reproductive
rituals begin and end with the male. The
female’s spawning role is relatively brief—
she lays the eggs then swims away.
“The male is basically a stay-at-home
dad,” Brandenburg explained. “He selects
the site, prepares the site by fanning it out,
then stays there to guard the young.”
Initially, the female might stay on the
nest for a few days after accepting the
site. But, chances are, the catfish people
pull out will be a brooding male catfish—
or something entirely different.
Everything from muskrats to snapping
turtles have been reported as hogging
surprises, which makes the act of hand
fishing a gutsy test of courage—like
being chased by bulls through the streets
“Everything in your rational brain tells
you to jerk your hand back,” Department
of Natural Resources fisheries biologist
Mike Hooe said, “especially when the cat-fish
closes its mouth on your hand.”
For these obvious reasons, the num-ber
of Illinois fishermen who employ hand
fishing is relatively small compared with
other fishing methods. But it’s a perfectly
legal practice on waters where wading is
allowed and where site regulations do not
prohibit such activity.
All you need is a valid Illinois fishing
license (unless exempt), a strong grip and
a craving for primitive adventure.
Catching a catfish by hand is one
of the most rustic of all fishing
techniques still in use today. Fearless
fishermen wade into summer waters,
reaching to find hiding catfish—
then grab them and pull them out.
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