Using Hands As Bait, "Noodlers" Stalk Giant Catfish

Yancey Hall
for National Geographic News
September 8, 2005
See Photos of Handfishers and Giant Catfish >>

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 bait—the 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."

The champion noodler chalks up his wins to practice and technique. From May until July, McFarlin noodles two or three times during the week and all weekend, routinely snagging his limit of three fish.

The secret to his success, he says, is a wrist-locking technique used for extra leverage on the big ones, which prevents the fish from spinning out of his hands. And whereas most anglers simply swipe their hands in a hole to check for a fish, McFarlin often uses a stick to probe the farthest-to-reach nooks.

McFarlin is quick to point out noodling should be practiced with two companions for safety. The extra hands can also block escape routes for wary fish.

More celebrity these days than hand-grabber, McFarlin routinely appears on television and radio talk shows around the world to describe the sport to the curious.

During his nearly 20 years as a noodler, he has caught catfish weighing up to 70 pounds (32 kilograms) and narrowly missed one that was well over a 100 pounds (45 kilograms).

The behemoth "was every bit of seven and a half feet [two meters] long. His head was wider than my whole chest," McFarlin recalls. "If I caught that fish, I would retire right then."

Noodling Battleground

Handfishing may be summertime fun for many, but some states have outlawed the practice.

Some conservationists argue that the practice can disturb populations of sexually mature fish at the worst possible time—breeding season.

Only this year has Missouri allowed a trial season in three waterways. The move was not without controversy, and it came with intense lobbying from a group called Noodlers Anonymous.

Enter Howard Ramsay, president and founder of the group, who goes by the mantra, "If you're not bleeding, you're not handfishing." The 59-year-old has been noodling since he was 12 and says he once received a U.S. $500 fine for illegally catching a fish in 1991.

Five years ago Ramsay began a personal odyssey to legalize handfishing in Missouri, which has outlawed the practice since the early 20th century. He says he founded Noodlers Anonymous to give a voice to the cause and legalize the sport in the state.

"We've got about 500 members statewide, but there's only maybe a 100 or 150 that have their names down," Ramsay said. "That's been the biggest problem with this organization. Nobody wants to come out of the closet and admit they're a hand-fisherman."

After years of lobbying both the state house of representatives and the Missouri Department of Conservation (DOC), Ramsey finally succeeded in convincing the DOC to allow a trial season for three Missouri waterways.

Reasons for the state's ban have traditionally been cultural. Some rod-and-tackle catfish anglers consider noodling unsportsmanlike. Another concern is taking fish off the nest when they're spawning—a reason Ramsay is quick to debunk.

"We've had one of the world's leading authorities on flathead catfish, Dr. Donald Jackson, speak about handfishing to the [Missouri DOC] regulations committee," Ramsay said. "His studies have shown that noodling does not have an adverse effect on the catfish population. There's just not that many people doing it."

Of the approximately 500,000 catfishers in Missouri, only about 2,000 are noodlers.

Wildlife officials say it's too early to draw conclusions from this summer's trial handfishing season. When the season ended in July, only about a hundred noodlers had registered for permits.

Steve Eder, the Fisheries Division administrator for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says more time for study will be needed before the season can be opened up statewide.

Family Tradition

Despite the controversy, Ramsay and his fellow noodlers continue to hit the water in search of the big one. Most handfishers regard their sport not as a thrill-seeking pastime but as a revered tradition passed on to each generation—male and female.

"I've got a son and a daughter, and both of them were raised catching fish with their hands—and of course my wife too," Ramsay said. "I've got two granddaughters that are just starting. One is seven and one is eight. It's wholesome family fun is what it is."

Still, heart-pounding brushes with monster catfish and other critters do happen. Ramsay says he had his shoe torn off by a flathead when he stuck his leg into an underwater hole.

McFarlin, the Okie Noodling Tournament champion, recalls a more bizarre incident: the time a fellow noodler unwittingly fished out a beaver. But that's another story altogether.

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