Noodling is the practice, and some would contend sport, of fishing for catfish using only one's bare hands. Noodling may be called grabbling, graveling, hogging, or tickling depending what southern state you're in (Kentuckians call it dogging, while Nebraskans prefer stumping.) Despite these colorful idioms, it's better explained by the name 'handfishing,' however this term is less popular among those who participate in noodling. Only four states in the United States have laws permitting handfishing: Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The term noodling, although today is used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand-based fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod & tackle, speargun, etc.; but this usage is much less common. The term noodling is believed to come from noodle, a slang term for a foolish person. While it would be hard to argue that unconventional fishing methods are foolish in and of themselves, it would be much easier to make the same case for someone using their arm as bait.
How to Noodle
Although simply enough, noodling is fishing with only the use of your hands, the process of noodling is more complicated. The choice of catfish as the prey is not arbitrary, but comes from the circumstances of their habitat. Flathead catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers and lakes and thus are easy to capture due to the static nature of their dwelling. To begin, a noodler goes underwater to depths ranging from only a few feet to up to twenty feet. Placing his hand inside a discovered catfish hole, a noodler uses his arm as bait to entice the fish. If all goes as planned, the catfish will lunge and latch into the handfisherman's hand and arm.
From here most noodlers have 'spotters' who help them bring the catfish in, either to shore or to their boat. The first order of business after catching a catfish is to get them unstuck. When a catfish bites onto a noodler it holds on for quite a while, believing it has caught some food. With gills and teeth scraping and cutting into the handfisherman's skin, the spotters helps to secure the fish by other means and then proceed to ease the catfish's grip off of the noodler's arm.
With some of the bigger fish caught weighing in at up to 50-60 pounds, very few noodlers are strong enough (or brave enough) to attempt noodling by themselves. Although carrying the fish after they have been subdued is little problem, trying to secure the fish and remove them from one's arm at the same time can be quite the challenge.
The Sport of Noodling and Noodling Outside of the South
In 1989, The Late Show with David Letterman introdued popular American culture to the local phenomenon of noodling when Oklahoma noodler Jerry Rider climbed into a tank with a catfish and caught it using his bare hands. For a time Rider became the face of noodling, and appeared in countless news stories and numerous newspaper articles around this time as well. Most of theses stories were light-hearted variety pieces with little information, very few of them looked at the practice as a serious sport as noodlers may have wanted.
The closest thing to a serious examination of noodling accessible to popular culture was a documentary released in 2001 called Okie Noodling, directed by local documentarian Bradley Beesley. The documentary covers the history and current practice of noodling as it is practiced in Oklahoma. During the course of the documentary the realization that there were no official noodling contests spawned the First Annual Okie Noodling Tournament. The tournament brought in young blood from across Oklahoma to a sport mostly passed down from father to son. The release of the documentary and its subsequent airing on PBS affiliates has, if not made the sport more popular, raised its profile to more than just a local phenomenon.
Although not mentioning women in noodling explicitly, through interviews Okie Noodling helps to explain women's relationship to the sport. Although some women relate stories of times they have 'noodled,' the majority of practicing noodlers were and are men. Many of the male noodlers explained how they began noodling when their father took them out, and how they planned to bring their sons into the world of noodling. Also, as others who have written on noodling have expressed, if noodling is to be considered a sport, then (at least to outsiders) it is most definitely an extreme sport, which tend to draw a disproportionate number of male followers.
Dangers of Noodling
Although no deaths have been recorded in the recent history of noodling, this could have more to do with the fact that very little about noodling has been seriously documented until recently. Despite that, almost every instance of noodling involves minor wounds, due to the 'arm as bait' process of noodling. Although superficial cuts are received with every catfish caught, this can be avoided to an extent by wearing gloves and other protective clothing (althought most noodlers take no such precautions.) A slight danger of drowning exists, as most holes are far enough down in the water that diving is required to reach into them. At the bottom of a lake with a 50 pound catfish latched onto your arm is not a position you want to find yourself in without help. Spotters can alleviate this danger, but it is still present. It is possible that statistics on noodling deaths are not available or accurate due to the depths at which many catfish live. A severely wounded noodler ten to twenty feet underwater might not have the physical capacity to return safely to the surface of the water, resulting in the official cause of death as death by drowning.
By far the most prevalent danger posed to noodlers are other marine life found in catfish holes. By far more dangerous than catfish are beavers and snapping turtles, who will take over abandoned catfish holes as homes of their own. These animals are always on the mind of experienced noodlers, and although they can level much more serious and lasting harm than the catfish themslves, most noodlers are not too worried about them. Okie Noodling provided anecdotal evidence that beavers have gnawwed off the hands and arms of former noodlers, but no disabled noodlers were presented as proof.
- http://www.okienoodling.com/ (Okie Noodling documentary website)
- http://www.news-star.com/stories/031001/com_fish.shtml (Local OK news story)
- http://espn.go.com/outdoors/general/columns/sutton_keith/1336494.html (ESPN article)
In the interest of disclosure, this article was written with the intention of posting as a stub article to Wikipedia. However, as it evolved on paper I found I had much more to say about it than originally thought, and it became a full-sized article of sorts. A tamer, blander version of this article was posted @ Wikipedia by myself following the post here @ E2.
This writeup is released under the GFDL, version 1.2 or any later version.