T.J. Gramberg of Siren, Wisconsin, targets fat channel catfish like this one when she’s
out guiding anglers on the Clam River lakes. (T.J. Gramberg photo)
Women Who Love to Catch Catfish
By Alan Clemons
The history of catfishing throughout America is dotted with women who love catching Mr. Whiskers. Whether from a pond or mighty river, catfishing is fun for everyone.
The sight was familiar on Reelfoot Lake: a boat slowly making its way across the stump-filled Joe Basin or Blue Basin, operated by someone in a blinding yellow shirt and big hat. If you didn’t know that Virginia Dare Hayes was on her way, as usual, to her fishing spots, you quickly learned.
Mrs. Hayes fished almost every day when possible. Her obituary in 2019 included that she “was an avid hunter and fisherman.” Mostly for crappie, but bluegills and catfish were fine, too.
Reelfoot Lake is a catfish heaven so it’s not a surprise that she might have a whiskerfish or two upon her return. The Hayes family has been part of Reelfoot’s history for more than 100 years, with multiple camps, lodges and restaurants among other businesses. Her grandsons now operate Blue Bank Resort, the next generation on the famed earthquake lake in northwest Tennessee.
Mrs. Hayes deserves a mention about women who are involved with catfishing or who just love to catch them. She wouldn’t have seen herself as a feminist or whatever other label some might want to affix. I’d bet a plug of stinkbait that she would tell any woman interested in catfishing, or fishing or hunting, to just get after it and learn about it, make mistakes, keep trying and eventually you’ll figure it out.
T.J. Gramberg of Wisconsin and Tabitha Linville of West Virginia are two women who probably would’ve gotten a big thumbs up from Mrs. Hayes.
Gramberg owns Bent Rod Adventures in northwest Wisconsin. She guides for big channel cats,
upwards of 30 pounds, on Big Clam and Little Clam lakes, which are formed by the Clam River. About five years ago, she and her husband were fishing when she caught a big catfish. The fight was better than anything else, and she was hooked.
Three years ago, amid all the COVID-19 mess, she decided to open her guide service. Sounds like crazy timing, but it actually worked out just fine. She and her husband found a 24-foot pontoon boat. The first year they took out about 40 trips and landed about 70 Wisconsin Women Who Fish Master Angler catfish.
“I just love the fight … a catfish is a totally different fight, and especially for us since the channel catfish are bigger up here,” Gramberg said. “We average probably 33-inch channel cats, which is decent size and pretty heavy. They have some strength to them. Compared to southern channel cats, they’re bigger.
West Virginia catfish guide Tabitha Linville targets giant catfish and loves tangling with big flatheads like this one. (Tabitha Linville photo)
West Virginia catfish guide Tabitha Linville often catches monster flathead catfish like this one in water as shallow as 10 feet. The big predators lurk around logjams and bluegill beds in spring plucking tasty morsels. (Tabitha Linville photo)
When fishing at home in West Virginia, catfish guide Tabitha Linville goes after flatheads. But she doesn’t mind wrangling a big blue cat like this one caught on Wheeler Lake in Alabama. (Tabitha Linville photo)
“My husband and I were out fishing one day for panfish and happened to catch a channel cat by accident. Neither one of us had ever caught one. We didn’t know how to handle one, didn’t have a net or anything. It was quite the experience, quite crazy. We’re used to catching northern pike and fish that fight pretty good, but that was insane for us. It was a totally new experience.”
Tabitha Linville had a similar epiphany with catfishing. While bank fishing in 2009 with her boyfriend, Justin Conner, on the Kanawha River in West Virginia, she landed a 30-pound flathead. The couple had fished smaller creeks and streams together while dating in high school and occasionally went to the Kanawha. It’s 97 miles long, flowing through the middle of the state before joining the mighty Ohio.
Like Gramberg, Linville was hooked after tangling with her first big catfish. They got a boat in 2012 and began fishing more frequently, and catching more fish. That fueled a fire that has since resulted in the two opening a catfishing guide service (The Catfishing Duo Guide Service LLC, the first in West Virginia), competing in major tournaments and landing sponsorships from SeaArk, Slimeline, Hell Cat Rods and others. Each spring, they head to Wheeler Lake in Alabama for the SeaArk tournament and also will fish on Lake Guntersville.
Linville said the power of the big fish, along with seeing people catching their first monster or personal best, is what helps keep her excited after almost 15 years.
“A lot of them haven’t caught anything much more than 10 pounds, so seeing them catch a big one and get fired up is really a lot of fun,” she said. “Our average size is about 30 pounds; we’ll catch fish anywhere from five to 60 pounds on our trips. We always target the bigger fish, but you never know what you’ll catch, so you get a good combination.”
Linville’s personal best flathead is 68 pounds and her best blue is 93—both on Wheeler Lake. The flathead came in about 10 feet of water, she said. They also caught a 60-pound flathead on a planer board rig, but she’s more accustomed to anchoring and dropping bait if there’s current. The planer rigs are new to her and Conner, for days with no current and calm conditions.
Neither Gramberg nor Linville fish much in winter. Wisconsin lakes freeze over, “so you’d have to just about drop a bait on their head,” Gramberg said. In West Virginia, the weather can be unpredictable and cold, and deer season is open. Both women say taking a break isn’t a bad thing, of course. It helps them appreciate it more when spring arrives.
“Being able to teach people about fishing is the biggest thing for me,” Gramberg said. “It’s about teaching people the skills to find fish, without electronics. We don’t use them, and we show people how to pick out spots to find fish. A lot of the women don’t have the electronics or high-end equipment. So, teaching them to fish and find catfish with everyday stuff, that’s my big thing.
“Not everyone is there to learn. Some are there just to catch. Some don’t want to catch the bait, throw the bait out or any of that. They just want to fight the fish and that’s OK,” Gramberg added. “I’ve taken out girls from the age of three all the way to 78, and skill levels have varied vastly. Some have the strength to fight the fish alone, and some don’t. Working with everyone individually has its own joys, whether they are doing every part of the catfishing experience or not, because I know each person walks away with at least one piece of information on how to be successful.”
Mrs. Hayes, no doubt, would’ve been happy to hear that.
(Alan Clemons is an award-winning professional writer who has hunted and fished in more than 40 states. He has written about news, sports, outdoors and more since 1984. Some of his first memories of fishing are of catching catfish. Clemons is married and lives in Alabama.)