I learned the skill of tickling catfish when I was a child. Tickling a catfish is mainly a southern sport, and is fishing without any equipment other than your hands.
The first time I tried it alone, I leaned out over the river to peer into a hole undercut into the river bank, looking for a catfish. I slid out on my belly using the gnarled roots of tree behind me to hook my bare feet into allowing me to stretch out further over the water. It was then that a water moccasin sprang from the hole. I quickly cut short my intentions of catching catfish from holes I couldn’t see into.
One warm summer day I was belly down on a river bank watching minnows when a catfish swam up in front of me. I decided to try my hand at tickling catfish, and actually was able to put my fingers into the gill intending to use the forward motion of my hand in his gill to propel him up and onto the river bank.
He managed to get away, but time and practice soon gave me some success in tickling catfish in this manner. I learned that the moment I moved, the fish would quickly swim away, I learned in areas where catfish frequently swam I could place my hand in the water and hold it very still, waiting for them to appear, and hoping they came close enough to my hand and sometimes they did.
My technique was simple, index, middle and ring finger went into the gill and I used the forward motion to throw the catfish in an arc up onto the bank as far as I could. I couldn’t have depended upon my successes to have lived upon the catfish I caught, but each success was a thrill. This method of tickling requires lightning fast hands and a lot of luck as well as skill. It became an activity I enjoyed (when I was successful) and provided an occasional supplement to my daddy’s big catch caught on the trot lines. Mainly, it was a challenge to become faster.
It became a sport for me and my cousins, a contest if you will. We never achieved more than one fish each at a time, but we were quite proud of our successes. I was especially proud when our evening meal included a fish I had caught.
In this method of tickling, other than keeping an eye out for snakes, the most we ever suffered was getting finned, and that most frequently occurred from picking them up on the bank.
Catfish can injure you; they have teeth and will bite. Their fins create a very painful wound, and if the barbs penetrate the flesh they often have to be cut out. Any fisherman knows the catfish is a powerful fish, surprisingly strong for their size. Tickling requires caution, patience and a great deal of practice.
Most ticklers reach into holes on the bank or under logs. This form of tickling can be very dangerous as I learned early on. In the days of my childhood snapping turtles on the Cahaba River could be huge. I have seen snappers that were so large that it was impossible to lay them flat in a pickups bed; they would only fit in at an angle. I have seen these snappers bite a broom handle clean in two. I doubt the monster turtles exist today, but turtles can bite so hard that not even heavy gloves will protect you. As I learned, snakes can be in the locations that catfish prefer, as can turtles.
If you decide to tickle a catfish, check your local regulations as it is illegal in some areas.
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