How Noodling Works

By: Debra Ronca
Marine Life Image Gallery A noodling pro shows off his catfish catch. See more pictures of marine life.
Okie Noodling 2

­When most people go fishing, they hop in a boat with a rod and a reel. They spend a relaxing day with their buddies and a cooler of ice-cold drinks, lazily casting out and reeling in.

The fishing technique known as noodling is something completely different. There's no fishing rod. In fact, there's not even a boat. A noodler wades into the muddy water, feels around for a hole and waits for a fish to lurch out and sink its teeth into his hand.


Yep, people voluntarily do this. Noodling sounds easy enough -- stick your hand in the water, pull up a fish. But it's actually quite difficult and dangerous. And, you can't noodle for just any fish. (Noodling for piranhas? Probably a bad idea.) A noodler's fish is the flathead catfish. Since catfish nest in holes or under brush in the water, they're relatively easy to find. The noodler jams a hand into a catfish hole and wiggles his or her fingers, which causes the fish to swim forward and attack the hand by latching on with its teeth. That's when the noodler starts pulling the fish to the surface. For safety reasons, most noodling is done in shallow water; a particularly strong fish could pull a noodler under. It's never wise­ to noodle alone.


Noodling's roots are with the Native Americans, who were the first to use this fishing technique. During the Great Depression, people turned to noodling -- which, aft­er all, costs nothing -- to put food on the table. After that, it became family custom, a skill passed down through generations [source: Todras-Whitehill]. Noodling is concentrated in the rural American South and Midwest, where catfish are plentiful and tradition is strong.

Noodling -- also known as handfishing, hogging, tickling, grabbling or stumping -- is legal in only 13 states, up from just four in 2001 [source: eggs vulnerable. Many states have conservation programs in place to monitor the growth or decline of the catfish population. States that permit noodling set restrictions on the amount of catfish noodlers may catch. This number is considerably less than the number traditional anglers are permitted to hook [source: Gay].


Catfish Noodling 101

A noodler surfaces with a catfish.
Okie Noodling 2

Most noodling takes place in shallow water. If the water is over your head, it can be difficult or even impossible to wrestle a fish to the surface. Noodlers search for likely catfish hideouts -- inside submerged logs, fallen trees, under rocks or in mud banks. Catfish make their nests where they feel safe. During spawning season, which occurs in spring and summer when the water temperature rises to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius), you're likely to find catfish in their nests because they seldom abandon their eggs.

Once you locate a promising spot, you'll want to barricade any possible escape routes, using rocks, sandbags or your noodling buddies. Next, test the hole by poking it with a stick. Experienced noodlers can feel the difference between a catfish, a snake or a turtle. If your stick says it's a catfish, go ahead and jam your hand in the hole. Sometimes you can do this without putting your head underwater. But sometimes you'll have to take a deep breath and submerge yourself. You'll need your noodling buddies to act as spotters, in case trouble strikes.


If you're lucky, a catfish will swim out and, in an attempt to defend its nest or escape, will bite you. Some catfish may just nip at your fingers, but others will clamp onto your entire hand. Although catfish don't have super-sharp teeth, those teeth are plentiful. They curve inward, and noodlers say they feel like coarse sandpaper. The sandpaper feeling alone might not be so bad. But after a catfish clamps down on something, it tends to spin, which can rub your skin raw [source: Bilger].

If the fish doesn't clench your hand, you'll need to pull open its mouth to get a good grip. Then, wiggle your fingers to work them into the fish's gill cover, the respiratory area on the sides of the fish's head. Grabbing it by the gills makes it more difficult for the fish to bite you during a struggle. It also helps you hold on a bit tighter. Once you get a firm hold on the fish, pull that prize to the surface. A flathead catfish could weigh anywhere from 20 to 50 pounds (9 to 22.7 kilograms) or more, so this is no small task [source: FWC].

Here's where your spotters come in: If the fish drags you under, they'll pull you out. Once you get your fish to the surface, they'll pull it off your hand and throw it in the boat, thread it onto a rope, or let it go. Whether you keep the fish depends on the regulations in your particular state. In Missouri, for example, you must throw back any fish under 22 inches (55.8 centimeters), and you may only catch five catfish per day [source: AP].

Some noodlers use a small hook instead of a hand to grab the fish, a practice fishermen call gaffing. It's against regulations in most states where handfishing is legal because it violates the spirit of "hands only" fishing [source: Okie Fish].



Noodling for Sport and Prizes

Catfish aren't petite, as you can see from this photo. And, you never know what you're going to get in muddy water.
Okie Noodling 2

The biggest North American handfishing tournament is the Okie Noodling Tournament, held each July at Bob's Pig Shop in Pauls Valley, Okla. Brad Beesley, a filmmaker, founded the tournament in 2001 to create exciting footage for his noodling documentary "Okie Noodling." The tournament quickly gained popularity and grew from 37 entrants the first year to 125 entrants in 2008 [source: catfish noodlers pull in. The tournament offers cash and prizes worth more than $2000, with the biggest prize going to the biggest catch of the day.

The rules are simple. All noodlers in the tournament must obey Oklahoma wildlife regulations. Each contestant is allowed three flathead catfish, all of which must be caught in Oklahoma. Contestants must catch their fish within 24 hours of the start of the contest, and the fish must be alive at the time of judging [source: Okie Noodling]. The tournament awards prizes for the biggest fish and the biggest stringer, the combined weight of all three fish. So far, the largest fish caught during the tournament was 60.2 pounds (27.3 kilograms), and was noodled by Chad Lamb in 2007 [source:]. The Okie Noodling contest has separate categories for "natural" and "scuba" noodling. Scuba noodling is just like it sounds -- noodlers wears scuba gear and chase bigger catfish in deeper water.


Weigh-in is at 7:30 p.m. the Saturday of the contest. So rules permit entrants to begin searching for catfish at 7:30 p.m. Friday evening. Contestants in the Okie Noodling Tournament get an early start to secure the best fishing spot. In fact, noodlers will drive around all day looking for an undiscovered location. They're expected to stick to a gentlemen's agreement regarding fishing holes -- don't poke around in a spot where another group is already working [source: Eifling].

Before final weighing and judging, the catfish swim around in large tubs, and spectators take photos with them. What happens to the fish after the contest is over? Each noodler decides the fate of his catch. A lucky few catfish return home to the lake or river where they were caught. The rest are cleaned, battered and fried.

The Okie Noodling Tournament is certainly the first of its kind -- in North America, anyway. But since 1934, the Argungu Fishing Festival in Nigeria has attracted thousands of fishermen each year. The contest is one hour long and takes place in the Argungu River. Contestants do handfish, but rules allow them to drag nets along the bottom as well. In 2008, the winning fish was 140 pounds (63 kilograms). Unfortunately, a few days later, the winning fisherman, Bello Yakub, was arrested when judges realized he had actually brought a dead fish from another river [source: BBC].



Dangers of Noodling

When catfish are this big, it's easy to see why you might drown trying to drag one to the surface.
Okie Noodling 2

Noodling isn't relaxing fishing. It's actually quite dangerous, which is part of its draw. You'll need to be good swimmer to noodle, even in shallow water. Some fishermen dare to noodle in water that is waist to chin deep. Catfish are very strong, especially when they're fighting for their lives, and they can easily pull a person underwater. Many an old-timer has a story about someone who died because he couldn't get his hand loose from the catfish's jaw and was dragged to the bottom of the river [source: Bilger].

Every noodler will tell you that it's unsafe to noodle alone. Any handfisher needs a companion to help subdue a fish, extract his or her hand from a fish's maw or pull him or her out by the feet when trouble strikes underwater.


Earlier, we talked about the fact that once a catfish latches onto your hand, it's likely to spin around, ripping up your skin with its sandpaper-like teeth. Some noodlers wear gloves to protect themselves. But others eschew gloves because they can be a completely different kind of dangerous. Gloves may snag on a catfish's tooth or a stray branch and trap a noodler underwater. Most noodlers don't wear sleeved shirts for the same reason. Many handfishers would rather lose a little skin than risk drowning. Another reason not to wear gloves? It takes away the sense of touch necessary to differentiate a catfish from, say, a snapping turtle. A catfish feels smooth and slick. A turtle feels like rock. If you feel fur, you're probably touching a beaver or a muskrat. Our advice? Get outta there.

Sometimes what you think is a catfish hole is really home to a completely different creature. You probably won't hear about a noodler losing a finger to a catfish. But you'll hear tons of stories about digits lost to beavers or snapping turtles. The same habitats that attract catfish to lay their eggs also attract animals like muskrats, turtles, beavers and poisonous snakes. Obviously, you don't want to disturb any of these guys. Champion noodler Lee McFarlin told ESPN he'd once searched a lake for the missing body of a fellow noodler. When found, the man's body had bite marks to the skull -- the result of disturbing a beaver several feet underwater [source: Eifling].

The pure strength of a startled catfish presents a risk of injury. If you don't get a good grip on the fish you're chasing, chances are it will rocket out of its hole and straight into you, which could knock the wind out of you or even break a few ribs. Catfish also have barbs on their pectoral fins that can sting or slice your skin as the fish speeds by [source: Sutton].

Like we said, noodling is no picnic.

If we've whetted your appetite for adventure sports, visit the links on the next page for more outdoors excitement. 



Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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