Fishing. Who doesn’t like it? Grab a 6-pack and some worms. Bait your line, cast, and wait for a hit. Soak up some sun. Chew the fat with your buddy. If you want to tangle with monsters of the deep, turn on the Discovery Channel and kick up your feet.
Or go to Oklahoma. In the Sooner State, they’ve got catfish the size of fifth graders sleeping in holes in the muddy river banks. And what better way to pull one out than with your bare forearm? Leave the reel and rod at home because “bait and tackle” means something totally different here. Call it handfishing, grabbling, graveling, hogging, dogging, gurgling, tickling, or stumping. But in Oklahoma they call it noodling and consider it a tradition and way of life they are proud to carry on. Every year for the past decade they’ve been celebrating this unique fishing technique outside Bob’s Pig Shop in Paul’s Valley, OK. The AFP was there to take it all in.
In fact, we wanted to experience noodlin’ first hand. So before we arrived to Paul’s Valley for what might be considered a kind of “Redneck Oscars”, we drove a few hours east to meet up with Chase, David, and Austin on a lower tributary off Eufala Lake. It wasn’t a very dramatic scene when we finally found their location. Three men up to their armpits in dark lake water slowly moving in sync fifteen yards off the bank. But there was a silent tension with every step. At any moment, we might discover a 65 pound flathead strong enough to pull a man under and drown him in a fight of man vs. acquabeast. Noodling alone is a big no-no. And not just because you could grapple with a catfish strong enough to pull you under and never let go, but because catfish aren’t the only creatures living in those holes. Muskrats, beavers, snakes, and snapping turtles are often the 2nd tenants of former catfish holes and they can do some serious damage to a man’s arm as well. Catfish don’t really have teeth, so even though they can scrape you up, they can’t bite off your fingers they way a beaver could.
But all of our 2 hours of seeking was for naught. The water had become so warm during the latest heat wave that the heavy oxygen-rich cold water had sunk towards the bottom and forced the fish to spend most their time in lower depths; depths impossible to reach for noodling unless you were prepared with scuba gear (which is a legal category at the Okie Noodlin’ Fest). Still, we learned the strategies of noodling (sort of). The basic premise is to feel for catfish holes with your feet. These holes might be under rocks, ledges, or just in a steep embankment. During nesting season, female catfish will carve out a nice size hole or clean up a pre-existing den and lay her eggs. But because females will sometimes eat their hatchlings, the smaller male catfish will often chase females out of holes in order to protect and defend the eggs. When a hairy tattooed forearm threatens the nest, they latch down with an aggressive toothless bite. And when the fish lose, they end up on the grill or in a tank in the back of a pickup truck bound for Bob’s Pig Shop.
Having not yet seen a catfish, we hurried to Bob’s. The festival is actually a 24-hour competition and the deadline for turning in your catch was 7pm. It was 5pm and we were making good time, but 30 miles away from Paul’s Valley, the Dodge began belching out black smoke and sputtering. We couldn’t accelerate faster than 50mph or go more than 8 miles at time without having to stop and let the truck rest. On the side of the road, we were passed by pickups splashing water out of massive tanks carrying their prize fish. But in short intervals, we finally arrived with enough time to catch the last of the bulk of the weigh-ins. This one neighborhood street intersection was pandemonium. Fish gawkers “ooohed” and “awed” as a new truck in the procession of entrants unveiled their biggest catch. Then the fish were weighed and either went back to their owner’s tanks, or were stored in one of the official tanks, including what might be called the “noodle simulator.”
We had the opportunity to interview the crew that delivered the biggest fish of the festival and Andrew even got to pick up the 65lbs winner. This fish was caught using Scuba gear and purportedly (like all the fish) caught in the 24 hr time period. But there’s some speculation on how closely people follow the rules. One local told us she thought the catfish didn’t look fresh, like they had been caught months ago and had been fed up until tournament time, getting fatter in captivity. There’s no way to enforce the 24hr rule or the noodling rule other than asking people to honor the honor system. Given the natural wild streak of people who wrestle catfish bigger than than border collies, there’s a good chance these folks break a rule or two from time to time.
In the end, we didn’t get the ultimate shot we wanted…a massive flapping flathead glued to a grimacing man emerging from the water’s surface. But then again, maybe we came pretty close. Andrew’s definitely struggling to hold onto the lower lip of the prize winner 1/3 his body weight. Once you “get bit” they say you’ll never go back to your reel and tackle box again.