It goes by a lot of different names: noodling, grappling, grabbling and hillbilly hand-fishing.
Some simply call it nutty:
Sticking your hands down in murky water and groping underneath submerged logs and rocks, trying to latch onto a big catfish. Sometimes the catfish does the latching-on.
That’s why noodlers wear heavy gloves and always count their fingers at the end of every trip.
Whatever the appeal, noodling is popular. There are noodling videos, TV shows and websites devoted to the art. Noodling rodeos draw hundreds of competitors and offer prizes for the biggest and ugliest. (Catfish, not noodlers.)
I was introduced to noodling several years ago by Bobby Wilson, at the time Chief of Fisheries for the TWRA and now Executive Director. Bobby sent me some photos of his teenage sons dragging big catfish from beneath a riverbank with their bare hands.
I wrote a story about it that received a lot of noodling notice across the South. I started receiving complimentary noodling videos in the mail. One was titled, “Girls Gone Noodling.” Use your imagination.
I did some research and found that hand-fishing dates back to the Native Americans and probably beyond. They fished for food, not sport, and couldn’t wait around until spinning tackle was invented. So they noodled.
It’s a simple process that hasn’t changed over the centuries:
Wade along in water from waist deep to chin high, poking bare hands into underwater structures and crevices until you feel a catfish. Then grab it by the jaw.
Veteran noodlers know the locations of prime catfish hideouts which can be re-visited. Most of the big cats are released, and tend to return to their lairs to be re-noodled.
Noodlers ease along the bank, feeling out likely spots, until they find Mr. Whiskers at home. The noodler carefully gropes his way around the fish – who evidently isn’t ticklish — until he locates its mouth. He seizes the fish’s lower jaw and wrestles it to the surface.
Noodling can be hazardous to your health. Blue cats and flatheads can weigh over 100 pounds (the Tennessee state record is a 112-pounder) and they don’t go quietly. When one clamps onto a noodler’s hand with its sandpaper teeth and starts thrashing, it can be touch-and-go as to whom has noodled whom.
One noodler said he was once pulled under by a giant cat, and might have drowned if his buddy hadn’t rushed to his rescue.
Personally, I’d worry about poking my hand into a muddy underwater hole and maybe grabbing a snake or a snapping turtle. All the noodlers I interviewed said that has never happened to them.
One admitted he once got a fright when he pulled out a thrashing 3-foot Hellbender – a giant slimy salamander also known as a Devil Dog or (really) Snot Otter. They are repulsive but harmless, unless you count getting scared witless.
I asked the noodler what he did with his.
He said he let it go.