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Mississippi Handgrabbing: Man vs. fish (Part 1 of 2)

Mississippi ‘masters’ lure lunkers … using only their hands as bait

Mike Willoughby emerged from the mud-brown Mississippi water as if he were part of a river baptism, as if the very spirit of the Holy Ghost had taken possession of his being.

But Willoughby didn’t come up from the Big Black River singing. He didn’t say, “Hallelujah.”

Instead, Willoughby grimaced and grunted. He appeared to be in pain.

“He come up and bit me and twisted off,” the 33-year-old paint contractor from Jackson, Miss., said before groaning again. “Felt like a good fish.”

Then, Willoughby took a deep breath and disappeared into the water again. He was trying to coax a giant flathead catfish into biting his hand.

After his third dunk into the drink, Willoughby spit water, gasped for air and warned us again that the fish was “a good ‘un.”

“Alright, I’m fixin’ to come out with him,” Willoughby announced before going under a final time.

I suppose I shouldn’t have reacted with so much shock when Willoughby struggled to the surface with a 53-pound creature in his arms. I mean, I had seen photos and read accounts of men fishing for colossal catfish using only their bare hands. But I always remained skeptical.

Even after Willoughby lugged his leviathan to the boat and placed its still spasmodic body into a cooler, part of me — the logical and rational part — questioned the validity of the whole venture. To the uninitiated onlooker, what goes on under the cover of muddy water is a mystery.