for National Geographic News
Some people call it the Mount Everest of fishing. But most everyone else describes "noodling," or handfishing, as just plain crazy.
The sport's disciples wade river and lake bottoms, probing and prodding for the holes where monster flathead catfish lurk during breeding season. Handfishers then dive down and reach into the underwater lairs, hoping that a monster "cat" will chomp on the proffered baitthe noodler's hand.
What ensues next is a judo match of sorts as the angler wrestles the fish to the surface. Never mind the occasional snapping turtle or snake that gets in the way. Or for that matter, the toothy jaws of the huge fish that can bloody hands and forearms.
First practiced by Native Americans, noodling takes place during the warm summer months when catfish spawn in the southern and midwestern United States.
Depending on the region, the sport goes by many names. In Nebraska, it's known as "stumping." In other places it's called "grabbling," "hogging," "dogging," "graveling," or "tickling."
In Oklahoma, the pastime is known as noodling, which according to the Oxford English Dictionary, describes "a stupid person." Coincidence? Perhaps.
The Super Bowl of Noodling
The sport's biggest event is arguably the annual Okie Noodling Tournament held each June in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. Contestants of all ages convene at the event headquarters, Bob's Pig Shop, before setting off for nearby waters.
Entrants are divided into two categories: scuba and natural. The latter group handfishes without the aid of scuba gear, and during this year's tournament the biggest "naturally" caught fish weighed in at 51 pounds (23 kilograms).
Champion noodler Lee McFarlin took the prize fish with a little help from his daughter, Misty, the 2005 Okie Noodling Queen, who helped her father bring the monster catfish up from its hole.
"Everybody tells me I'm the guru of noodling," the elder McFarlin boasted following his win. "Until you can control that fish, he will whip your butt every time."
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