From Academic Kids

Noodling is the practice and sport of fishing for catfish using only one's bare hands. Noodling may be called grabbling, graveling, hogging, or tickling, depending on what southern state you're in (Kentuckians call it dogging, while Nebraskans prefer stumping.) Despite these colorful names, 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 explicitly permitting handfishing: Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Missouri has an experimental noodling season on sections of three rivers from June 1 through July 15, 2005. Noodlers Anonymous argues that the season is doomed to fail, though, because these river sections are too dangerous, too crowded, or otherwise not desirable for the sport.

The term noodling, although today 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 & reel, speargun, etc.; but this usage is much less common. This is easily explained by noting the origin of the term noodling, the word noodle is slang for a foolish person.


How to noodle

Although the concept is simple 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 swim forward and latch onto the fisherman'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 fisherman'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 biggest 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 a challenge.

The sport of noodling and noodling outside of the South

In 1989, The Late Show with David Letterman introduced American popular 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 these 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.

The Argungu Fishing Festival in Northern Nigeria is a perhaps the biggest noodling contest in the world. This yearly festival held in late February or early March, consists of up to five thousand fisherman catching catfish with their bare hands. Small fishing nets are used to secure the fish, but most of the fish are noodled from beneath a vast spread of water hyacinths and then placed in a floating gourd attached to the fisherman.

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 (although 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. A person confident in their swimming abilities may be caught off guard by the sudden added strain of carrying a large fish to the surface. 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. Another danger lies in one's clothes getting tangled or snagged on roots or rocks. To avoid this, many noodlers will dive wearing nothing more than their shorts. Noodling naked, and thereby eliminating any chance of catching one's clothes, has not been documented since the possible injuries in such a condition are simply not worth the risk.

The largest danger posed to noodlers are other forms of 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 themselves, most noodlers are not too worried about them. Okie Noodling provided anecdotal evidence that beavers have gnawed off the hands and arms of former noodlers, but no disabled noodlers were presented as proof.

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