Noodling for Catfish
It sounds like something out of scary movie. Slog along the banks of a river and stick your hands into holes underwater actually hoping something clamps down on your fist.
And you hope that the thing doing the biting is a big catfish.
This is noodling. No sleek bass boats or fancy fishing rigs. Just your hands and a hefty dose of liquid courage to help ease into the dark shallows where the monsters lurk. Oh, and bring a friend to watch your back when a ferocious cat as big as the plastic pony outside Wal-Mart breaks the surface. It ain't safe to be alone when he bites your hand and does the death roll.
Noodling has several names, depending on the region. In Nebraska, it's known as "stumping." In other places it's called "grabbling," "hogging," "dogging," "graveling," or "tickling." Oakies call it noodling, slang for a stupid person. Coincidence? Go figure. In any case, it's just plain weird.
As far as anyone knows, the sport gets its name from the fish's smooth skin. "That son of a gun is like a wet noodle when you try to catch him," champion noodler Lee McFarlin told National Geographic when it covered the 2005 Okie Noodling Tournament, the largest of its kind in the world. A noodler lands a catfish by wedging his thumbs into the corners of its mouth and hooking his fingers up under the gills. As long as you keep your thumbs lodged in the crook of the fish's maw, McFarlin says you'll avoid the countless teeth that carpet its jaws.
While no sharper than heavy-grade sandpaper, the cat's inward-facing teeth can spell trouble. If a fish clamps down on your hand — or worse, your arm — it morphs into a buzz saw, gyrating wildly as it attempts to strip the meat from whatever appendage it has between its mandibles. At best, you'll lose flesh. At worst, you'll drown.
Noodlers wade rivers and lakes, probing and prodding for the holes where gnarly catfish lurk during breeding season, usually late May to July. The catfish are literally holed up under rocks, logs, rip-rap and boats ramps. Finding the holes is easy. Getting the fish out of them is trickier. After laying eggs, female catfish leave the nest and the male stands guard and doesn't eat much. As a consequence, it gobbles down anything it can. Especially a hand that reaches into the nest.
You're starting to get the weird part of all this, right? Once the cat clamps down on his fist, the fisherman pulls the fish to shore.
Mud Wrestling Big Uglies
Don Brewer of Oklahoma told Field and Stream magazine. "Make it to the boat and you know who's won." He has six championship titles, and many more catfish-inflicted scars — 50 on his arms alone. His shoulder tattoo, which reads BITE ME and shows a catfish chomping on a human arm, was a Valentine's Day present from his wife.
This is a good idea, why?
It is if you're hungry.
When the trotlines came up empty, R.J. Baurle and his buddies went after the fish, corralling them with seine nets or reaching into holes to jerk them to the surface. They had good reason. In the 1930s, when he was a kid, a big fish meant supper.
The closest most folks come to hand grabbing catfish is reaching across the table and snatching a fried fillet off a platter, said Keith Catfish Sutton, who wrote about his first — and last — noodling experience for ESPN.
That's also dangerous, but only when you're sharing a table with hungry friends, and there's one fillet left, Sutton wrote.
Me? Well, I was stupid enough to try hand grabbing the old fashioned way. When I reached in that hole, a catfish was home. It didn't bite. It didn't spin. It shot from the hole like a torpedo from a submarine tube, and smashed square into my chest. People standing on the bank above me saw lots of bubbles rising to the surface as the air left my lungs. Then they watched as a 250-pound man leapt from the water and onto shore like a migrating salmon ascending a waterfall.
Blood dripped from my arm where the catfish's spines brushed me.
What happened? asked Three-Fingered Jack. (Such nicknames are common.)
Something bit me. A snake or a snapping turtle, maybe. I'm done noodling.
"Ah, c'mon, Stupid," said Nubbins, who lost two fingers to a stumps of two fingers lost to a snapping turtle in a noodling incident gone bad. "We're going over to the Hole-tel on Barksdale Lake. Ain't no snakes or snapping turtles there. Only real big catfish."
I counted my fingers, Sutton said. I still had all 10.
Fear of losing a digit is why some noodlers wear Kevlar gloves — what police use to stop a bullet — although most don't because gaining a firm hold seems easier with naked hands. Until you can control that fish, he will whip your butt every time," McFarlin says.
Once you get in their mouth good, you've got to hold on," says Marty Jenkins, head of Catfish Grabblers, a production company that makes noodling DVDs. Buy one and you'll get plenty of instruction and friendly warnings like:
"The fish are defending their holes while they're spawning, and when something comes into their holes, they will grab a hold of it, and thrash around for a second or two. But that's when they can do their damage."
Apparently, the adrenalin rush from rasslin' catfish is comparable to skateboarding, surfing, freestyle motorcross or sports considered extreme.
According to Sutton, one of the foremost experts on catfishing, blindly sticking one's hand into swamp holes attracts the same personalities as those who backflip motorcycles or fly 40-foot gaps on skateboards.
"I refer to noodling as extreme fishing," Sutton told the Toronto (Canada) Star. You're reaching into places you can't see, and you're never sure of what's in there. It may be a catfish, but it may also be a turtle or a muskrat or who knows what.
"I think the people who do it like the adrenaline kick you get out of extreme sports. It's not something that everybody does, but it is something that when they hear about it or see something on TV, they go, 'Gee whiz, look at these idiots. Let's check this out.'
Noodling is a cultural thing, handed from granddad to dad to sons and daughters, says Wiley Prewitt of Oxford, Miss. He studies hunting and fishing traditions and is a consultant to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. "It's not the first thing you would think about, to get in the water and grab a fish with your bare hands, Prewitt told the Atlanta Journal Constitution for it's article Fish, Booze and Noodlers.
It's kinda like drugs, says Thomas Riggs. It gets in your blood and it's hard to kick. Like I tell my wife, when I quit noodling they'll be throwing dirt in my face 'cause I'll be 6 feet under.
If noodling is a drug, then the annual Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley is the ultimate rehab. Contestants of all ages meet at Bob's Pig Shop before setting off for nearby waters. Entrants are divided into two categories: scuba and natural. The latter group handfishes without scuba gear and breathing devices. Afterward, there's a big fish fry — catfish, of course.
This year, Scooter and Skipper Bivins of Temple, Okla., won the top prize of $500 for biggest fish with a flathead weighing 64.8 pounds
The Bivins brothers also had the biggest three-fish stringer of 173 pounds and won an additional $300. Of the 140 entries, only 29 noodlers checked in fish. An estimated crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 attended the weigh-in at Bob's Pig Shop.
Check local regulations before noodling. In some states, it's illegal. In others, noodling is permitted during special seasons with various restrictions.
Noodling was once a relatively inconspicuous activity, popular in certain regions and unknown in others. National media outlets have covered the event including major sports networks, the New York Times, the BBC and the Food Network. So far, press has been positive and tournament officials plan to keep it that way.
A tournament spokesman reportedly denied press credentials to an MTV film crew last year fearing the project's producers might portray noodlers as ignorant hillbillies.
To noodle, one must be brave enough, or foolish enough, depending on your point of view, to reach into an underwater hole and extract the occupant. At times, this is quite simple. The occupant simply chomps down on your hand before you can react. If the creature is a catfish, your friends will pat you on the back and tell anyone who will listen how you bravely fought the monstrous beast. If it is, instead, a snapping turtle, snake or muskrat, they'll ask how you could be so stupid as to stick your hand in a hole where you couldn't see, then give you a nickname like Nubbins, Two-Fingered Jack, or Stubby." -Keith Sutton
"Fishing for Catfish," 1998