[1 August 2007]
“. . . for the catfish is a plenty good enough fish for anybody” – Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi
They scour the brownish waters of lakes and rivers in America’s South and Midwest, surveying muddy banks and underwater nooks, seeking prey with a curious tenacity. Then, they repeat that predatory glare along the water’s bottom, scrutinizing an aquatic cavity and its inhabitants, holding their breath like mythological mermen, sleuthing for quarry, waiting to wrestle the Big One. They’re not herons, ospreys, or eagles, nor are they turtles, snakes, or alligators…they’re noodlers, those eccentric anglers from below the Mason-Dixon line who capture giant catfish with, of all things, their hands.
Having lived with my fingers for 36 years, the last image I thought they resembled was “noodles”. At times, fat and stumpy, at others, bony and lithe, I never imagined a catfish, or any fish, could be seduced into devouring my “five brothers”. But for noodlers, handfishermen, and catfish grabbers who revel in—the term varies depending on the region—noodlin’, hoggin’, stumpin’, ticklin’, or doggin’, among other exotic nomenclature, their fingers are exactly that: bait used to entice large flathead catfish into chomping their fingers, hands, and sometimes, an entire arm. Fish are universally misunderstood predators; fishermen understand this, but most non-fishermen don’t: many species will devour anything that moves if it’s noticeably smaller than itself. However, some species don’t let size ruin the feast. Flatheads are known for their aggressive predatory instincts, and their favorite prey is fish. They are the quintessential catfish, the overlords of that family of underwater whiskered-weasels inhabiting America’s watery haunts.
Noodling goes like this: During summer months, flatheads migrate to shallow water seeking nesting grounds such as fallen logs, tree root masses, underwater debris, or other submerged fixtures to spawn. As catfish guru Keith Sutton explains in “Understanding the Catfish Spawn”, a male flathead prepares a nest site and lures a female to lay eggs there. The male fertilizes the mass, guards the nest from predators, aerates the eggs with its fins and tail, and wipes away sediments. When the eggs hatch, the male protects the fry until they are ready to leave. The spawn is a chivalrous ritual, one worthy of the most romantic Romantic’s respect.
Photo by Garold Sneegas
During this time, that small fraternity of noodlers wades in, also seeking those nesting grounds. When noodlers locate a favorite hole, they probe the cavity, examine its denizen, and confirm it is a flathead and not a muskrat, snapping turtle, water moccasin, or beaver; each can produce its own painful bite. Since the water is muddy and it’s difficult to see what you’re groping at, the process requires an extraordinary display of tactile prowess, and bravery or stupidity, depending on your temperament. Many noodlers harbor strategies to determine those inhabitants in hand: if it feels slippery and smooth, it’s a catfish; hard, it’s a snapping turtle; rough like sandpaper, it’s a snake.
The ideal species identified, the catfish then attacks the hand, forcing the noodler to grab it by the mouth or gill plate and wrestle it to the surface. This is relatively common behavior since any disturbance outside the cavity irritates the “proud papa” and he’ll lunge at virtually anything. Alternatively, if the catfish needs enticing, the noodler wiggles his or her fingers to lure the fish to attack. According to experts, when a giant flathead swallows an arm, the catch, although not without perils, can be easier since the leverage usually leans to the noodler. Once the catfish is seized, the noodler wrestles it to the surface, often wrapping his legs around the fish’s tail to hold it steady until a few buddies arrive to guide the couple to shore.
Noodling has not escaped the notice of denizens of pop culture. Legendary noodlers Jerry Rider and Lee McFarlin have become the “faces of noodling”, and in 1989, Rider appeared on The David Letterman Show to showcase his talents in a large tank. Although noodling’s popularity can be attributed to many factors, Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Bradley Beesley is largely responsible for its recent emergence. His documentary, Okie Noodling, explores the many dimensions of the sport and its practitioners, mostly from Oklahoma. Released in 2000, the film culminates with the first ever Okie Catfish Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. Beesley, who Filmmaker Magazine named as one of the “Top 25 Independent Filmmakers” in 2002, has also received awards for his Hill Stomp Hollar, a documentary about the unique world of Fat Possum Records and Mississippi Hill Country blues.
Beesley’s acumen in documenting peculiarities in Southern culture is impressive, and Okie Noodling is the port of entry for understanding this strange fishing tradition. In it, he demonstrates how noodling is infused with familial traditions and mostly practiced by men. However, if you think noodling is only for macho, thrill seeking guys, you’re wrong. Catfish Grabblers, an organization of lady noodlers based in Tennessee, passionately promotes the sport, and one of its proudest productions is the Girls Gone Grabblin’ DVD. Another major reason why noodling has become a popular cultural phenomenon is because of Burkhard Bilger’s engaging essay anthology, Noodling for Flatheads: Moonshine, Monster Catfish, and Other Southern Comforts.
Bilger, a childhood friend of McFarlin, understands the mystery of catfish; without these odd creatures, noodling wouldn’t have become a colorful chapter in American mythology, and eccentric cats like noodlers wouldn’t pursue just ordinary fish. As they say, it takes one to know one, so to understand that mythos, one must first understand their legendary size.
As Yancey Hall reports for National Geographic News, McFarlin said he once missed a cat over 100 pounds. McFarlin said it was “was every bit of seven and a half feet [two meters] long. His head was wider than my whole chest.” Tim Pruitt of Illinois in May, 2005 caught a world record blue catfish in the Mississippi River; the fished weighed in at 124 pounds. Sutton reports, “June 1, 2005, was declared Tim Pruitt Day in Illinois, and he shared a podium in Springfield with Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn. ‘I was in the presence of greatness,’ the governor later said, categorizing Pruitt, the fish and the river as legendary. ‘His feat is inspirational to Illinois’ 1.2 million anglers, to tourists and to everyone who ever told a fish story about the one that got away.’” But of course, America isn’t the only home for humongous catfish. Later that same summer, fishermen in a remote village in Thailand landed a Mekong catfish that weighed 646lbs, yes, that’s six-hundred-and-forty-six, pounds.
Epic tales of American adventurers fighting monster catfish have long been the stuff of legend. Bilger writes, “Now, your average catfish is an innocuous thing: farm fed, soberly whiskered, tender as an earlobe. But inflate that fish a hundredfold…and it becomes a true American monster. When it lunges from the river bottom, opening jaws the size of dinner plates, the suction may pull in almost anything: shrimp, fish, snake, or rat, baby duck or beaver.”
Legends in the South abound about the behemoth-like qualities of catfish. Bilger opens his chapter about noodling with these two anecdotes: Jacques Marquette in 1673 wrote, “The great river was very dangerous (the Indians said). There was a demon…who would engulf any who approached in the abyss where he dwelt,” which prompted Mark Twain two centuries later in Life on the Mississippi to respond, “I have a seen a Mississippi catfish that was more than six feet long and weighed more than 250 pounds. And if Marquette’s fish was the fellow to that one, he had a fair right to think the river’s roaring demon was come.” In terms of size, ichthyologists, anglers, and other fish enthusiasts will struggle to find a more intimidating freshwater fish.
The reproductive rituals of catfish are equally provocative. Sutton writes, “Spawning season is peak time to catch many game fish, but when catfish are considered, it’s a different story. The spawning habits of catfish differ greatly from those of other game fish, and fishing success may take a nosedive when blues, flatheads and channel cats are on their nests.” According to Sutton, whose nickname is “Catfish,” the spawn is directly contingent on water temperature, and since this occurs during summer months, the actual spawning season will vary depending on not only the geographical area (catfish in Virginia will do so sooner than catfish in Mississippi) but also the location of a specific body of water. Catfish in headwaters such as creeks and streams will spawn earlier than their brethren in lakes because the former waters are shallower, thus warming faster. These nuances are tricky for the inexperienced catfish angler and one reason why these fish have captured our imaginations. The unpredictability of catfish reflects the climatologic and geographic peculiarities of a given state, region, or body of water. Thus, for noodlers, taming such a large, mercurial fish is in itself legendary. Catfish are also strong, eccentric characters that have for many years snubbed their whiskered noses at the angling establishment.
Of course, their eccentric mugs and physiology are another point of contention: some say they’re ugly, while others call them eccentric beauties. The barbels along a catfish’s lips, resembling stoic, regal mustaches and goatees that only wise grandfathers smoking pipes could boast, provide an outstanding sense of taste. In fact, their entire bodies and mouths are covered in taste buds known as chemoreceptors. Most experts agree that catfish are sensory machines. Each sense is hyperactive, and they possess electroreception, due to tiny pores on their head, which allows them to detect movement from impressive distances.
Catfish are also bony, and their pectoral and dorsal fins have sharp, needle-like bones that can cause much damage if not handled carefully. This bony structure is also what anchors them to the water’s bottom: they tend to sink more than float. Even more unusual, catfish have no scales; instead, their bodies are covered in naked skins or, depending on the species, scutes, which are bony plates similar to a turtle’s shell or a crocodile’s skin. Having no scales and many bones makes cleaning and filleting them a unique process, but it’s one worth learning (and witnessing): catfish are delicious fare, and many are farm-raised throughout the world.
Furthermore, the bottom-dwelling habits of catfish have become metaphors for their ichthyologic status. Since they inhabit the bottom, they must be inferior, a theory Bilger believes reflects our deepest social stereotypes. “Haughty, neurotic, and beautiful, trout are natural aristocrats,” he writes. “Largemouth bass, omnipresent and resilient, are the river’s working class. Catfish, in this view, are true bottom dwellers.” Bilger notes that no popular conservation groups like Trout Unlimited represent catfish, and fly-fisherman, the true noblemen of the angling ranks, rarely, if ever, pursue catfish. Catfish have never been known for their selective appetites either, a quality sport fishermen value. In fact, catfish have been known to devour any bait available, from worms, shrimp, minnows, and cheese to small rodents and reptiles. Thus, the misperception that they are easy to catch pervades.
Photo by Garold Sneegas
However, this negative hype surrounding catfish, Sutton believes, is changing. In ”Out there: Catfish go mainstream”, he writes, “There were few books about the sport, and not many television programs either. Catfishing enthusiasts seldom fished in tournaments. Except for specialty baits, few products manufactured specifically for catching catfish were available. During the past decade, though, the tide has begun to turn. Suddenly catfish are ‘in’, and more and more we see products, texts, programs and competitions created especially for those who enjoy catching these hard-fighting, good-eating sportfish.” According to Sutton, the sport of catfish angling hasn’t suddenly become popular; conversely, it’s just becoming more publicized, visible, and most importantly, respected by various constituencies including politicians, angling associations, and the media, which brings us back to those funky noodlers.
Like catfish, the sport has been around for centuries, but now, after making its rounds in pop culture forums, its historical, sociological, and even political implications are being felt. Bilger and Sutton both point to this excerpt, penned by Trader-historian James Adair in 1775, as one of the first descriptions of noodling:
They pull off their red breeches, or their long slip of Stroud cloth, and wrapping it around their arm, so as to reach the lower part of the palm of their right hand, they dive under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun, and to watch for prey: as soon as those fierce aquatic animals see that tempting bait, they immediately seize it with the greatest violence, in order to swallow it. Then is the time for the diver to improve the favourable opportunity: he accordingly opens his hand, seizes the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it & and at last brings it safe ashore.
And modern-day grabbers also share the joys Native Americans found in noodling. Scott Charton of the Associated Press reports that, according to a study conducted by University of Missouri Professor of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Mark Morgan, who studied noodlers, “Most are men, average age about 40, who started noodling in early adolescence and are usually joined by friends.” These family traditions offer noodlers many benefits. “This is their form of recreation…it’s wholesome family fun, social bonding and being with nature. They also are really brave or really crazy, because there are dangers,” Morgan said. Of course, the caught fish are usually eaten, and a 60-pound catfish can provide many dinners. During the Depression, noodling became an important fishing practice for hungry citizens.
But noodling does have dissenters. The phrase “noodling around” implies a lack of seriousness and discipline. Some question the intellect of such fisherman; as Hall reports, “noodling… according to the Oxford English Dictionary, describes ‘a stupid person.’” Some critics accuse noodlers of damaging the spawning habitats of flatheads. Since flatheads are caught while spawning, critics accuse noodlers of, well, noodling with the fry’s mortality, as they’re not likely to survive without the protection of the male fish. Further, they argue, noodling is unsportsmanlike because flatheads are vulnerable during the spawning season.
The sport is also extremely dangerous: noodlers have died from drowning and from poisonous water moccasin bites. Other snakes, including copperheads, have been known to nibble on noodlers’ feet and fingers. Snapping turtles can easily sever a finger, and beavers, after all, can saw the base of a tree with expertise, so one can imagine how easily human flesh can be torn apart by a beaver’s gnawing jaws. The catfish themselves have sandpaper-like teeth, and when caught, with a noodler’s arm in its mouth, a flathead will do a crocodile-like death twirl that literally rips apart the noodler’s flesh. Some grabbers wisely use gloves; however, others don’t and take their skinnings in stride, which is why some consider them foolish and others consider them brave.
As the method becomes more widely known, only time will tell how many of the nine million catfishers in America will turn to noodling.