Depending on how new you are to the world of fishing, you may or may not have heard of a very particular fishing technique called “noodling.” Noodling is a method of catching flathead catfish, for the most part, and is employed primarily in the southern United States. The term is used technically for any method of catching a fish with your bare hands, but has come to refer primarily to a method that involves – and I’m being completely serious here – sticking your hand in a catfish’s mouth.
Yep. Right in there. Just like a plumbing company snaking out a drain. Basically, in order to get the fish to latch onto your arm (which is a thing you actually want to happen here), you have to stick your hand into a catfish’s home, which is usually an underwater hole of some sort, sometimes in old logs, under rocks, or tucked into mud banks. So you stick your arm on in there, the fish doesn’t like that you’re intruding upon its space, it latches itself onto your arm, and you grab it by the gills and yank it out of the water. Often, you’ll have a noodling partner who will help you bring the fish out of the water, which is probably a good idea, considering the average weight of a noodled flathead catfish is about 40 pounds.
The origins of the term “noodling” aren’t certain, but it certainly sounds less dangerous than it is, if you ask me. It’s considered do dangerous, in fact, that it’s been outlawed in many states. And that’s not terribly surprising, considering the danger of drowning, loss of fingers, infection, and the potential encounter with other creatures who may be inhabiting old catfish holes, such as alligators and snakes. Apparently experienced noodlers can tell by poking into a hole with a stick what kind of creature’s in there, and if they’re sure it’s a fish, they stick their hands in after they’ve made sure to barricade any escape routes that slippery little catfish may try to use.
People take their noodling pretty seriously, and there was a national tournament was set up in 2001 called the Okie Noodling Tournament, held in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, and it now draws thousands each year to get a look at some of these monstrous fish. To give you an idea of the size of these fish, in 2013, nineteen-year-old Lucy Millsap won the tournament with a 72 pound catfish, which was about half the size of Millsap herself.
As well as being a very popular sport in the southern States, noodling has no shortage of followers in Nigeria, where the Argungu Tournament attracts thousands of fisherman each year. One primary difference lies in the fact that the Nigerian fisherman are permitted to drag nets along the bottom of the river. That said, net or not net, I think we can agree that noodling is not for the faint of heart.