Off The Hook
The Art Of Catfish NoodlingAngie Lewis, Writer
Leave the pole and bait at home, ’cause you don’t need nothin’ but yer hands to catch you a big ol’ catfish!
Catfish noodling — also known in some parts of the country as hand-fishing, grabbling, tickling, catfishing, stumping, hand-grabbin’, cat-daddling, snatching or hogging — involves sticking your hand in an underwater hole, waiting for a catfish to bite you, then wrestling it out of the water. It’s a slippery and sometimes dangerous pastime, but avid noodlers think the risk is worth the reward of catching “the big one.”
No one knows where the term “noodling” originated, but many speculate it could be that a giant, squirmy catfish is like a wet noodle, or because noodlers sometimes wiggle their fingers — like wet spaghetti — in front of a catfish’s face to lure them.
Flathead and blue catfish spawn each spring and summer as the water temperatures in rivers, lakes and swamps rise above 70 degrees. Females make their nests in dens, which may be inside submerged logs, in mud banks, under rock piles, in washed-out banks under tree roots or in other protected areas. Males then hunker down and watch over the eggs.
Noodlers find these catfish hideouts, barricade any secondary exits, then stick a hand in the hole and wait to get bitten. Once the fish bites, a noodler grabs it by the gills and pulls it out.
The Danger At Hand
Since noodling season coincides with spawning season, eggs are likely to be destroyed in the process, which could cause a decrease in the catfish population — one of two main reasons catfish noodling is legal in only 15 states, primarily in the South and Midwest.
While both flathead and blue catfish can reach weights in excess of 100 pounds, it’s rare that anyone catches one that big. (Nate Williams and Kelly Millsap broke the national record in June 2017 with an 85-pound flathead catfish they caught in a Texas lake.) Instead, most noodlers wrestle 5- to 50-pounders out of the water. That brings us to the other reason most states ban the practice: danger to humans.
Catfish are extremely strong — especially when they’re protecting their eggs and fighting for their lives — and, just like alligators, they tend to start spinning once they bite down on something. This means they could potentially drown you, which is why you should never go noodling alone. You need someone there to pull you out, just in case. Plus, if you miss grabbing one, it could rocket out of its hole and knock the wind out of you or, even worse, break a rib or two. Not to mention, catfish have barbs on their pectoral fins, which can slice and/or sting your skin. As if that’s not enough, you also have to watch out for venomous snakes, beavers, snapping turtles, alligators, muskrats and other wildlife that may have taken up residence in a catfish den.
One of these brave catfish wranglers is part of the Atlas family. Ben Morgan of Morgan Roofing in Sturgis, MS started noodling when his cousin took him for the first time in high school.
“I was very apprehensive,” he says. “It’s a little unnerving sticking your hand in a hole when you can’t see anything. The first bite is scary as hell! Then you get mad and grab it back. It’s an adrenaline rush from there on.”
Over the past five years, he’s made it a regular event. Morgan’s group goes out once a week, but since he can’t make it every time, he goes whenever he can.
He says their favorite spot is the Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson. On average, they catch 10 to 40 fish, weighing anywhere from 5 to 45 pounds. They keep some to eat, but return some of the nice flatheads back to reproduce.
Morgan says they see beavers, snakes, turtles and alligators on every trip, but that they’ve never had a negative encounter.
“Life is short,” he says. “It’s an experience that’s worth it. It’s a huge accomplishment when you succeed. It’s more than just catching a fish — it’s overcoming a fear.”
Tail As Old As Time
Catfish noodling can be traced back centuries, to the days when Native Americans would wrap red cloths around their hands to entice the fish to bite. The sport has become more popular over the last few decades, thanks to being featured in a variety of TV shows.
In 1989, Jerry “Catfish” Rider, a hand-fishing champion from Oklahoma, appeared on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and demonstrated the sport by catching a catfish in a tank.
More than a decade later, the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” host Mike Rowe went noodling with Rider in the second episode of the show’s first season. On Discovery.com’s FAQ page, Rowe says there’s only one job he would refuse to do again: catfish noodling.
“Catfish noodling was difficult to shoot,” he says. “Logistically challenging, multiple locations, lots of water issues and dangerous.” Plus, he adds, he was “bitten (really hard) by a catfish.”
In 2001, filmmaker Bradley Beesley released a documentary, “Okie Noodling,” which spawned the annual Okie Noodling Tournament, as well as the sequel “Okie Noodling II.” In 2007, the husband-and-wife team of Marty and Fostana Jenkins produced “Girls Gone Grabblin’.” Then came “Hillbilly Handfishin’,” which aired from 2010 to 2013 on Animal Planet, and featured first-time noodlers from all walks of life being led by the pros at Big Fish Adventures in Oklahoma.
Celebrities have even gotten in on the act. Last year, Chef Gordon Ramsay met up with a local noodling champion in Oklahoma to learn how to catch a catfish with his bare hands for his Fox TV show “The F Word.” (Note for link above: It’s called “The F Word” for a reason!)
No matter how you slice it (or serve it!), catfish noodling has been around for centuries, so it’s not a fad. The most passionate noodlers find ways to incorporate their favorite hobby into some of life’s biggest moments. Take Shelby and Colt Moore, for example. The expecting couple revealed the gender of their baby, due in December, in a noodling video that recently went viral. Do you think they’ll name her Cat?