[Story] How the Catfish Noodling Craze Washed Over America

With catfishing noodling gaining in popularity, hand-fishing will become legal in West Virginia

Just 20 years ago, almost no one had heard about noodling for catfish. Now everyone has, and the sport is being legalized where once it was banned. (Photo courtesy of Keith "Catfish" Sutton)

It’s official. In 2019, hand-fishing for catfish – noodling – will be legal in West Virginia. A vote in early 2018 by members of the state Natural Resources Commission established a season and regulations for the practice.

The action came in response to Mountain State anglers’ desire to join legions of people in the South and Midwest who get their thrills by wrestling catfish from underwater hidey-holes using their bare hands.

According to Wikipedia, noodling in some form was already legal in 15 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin.

West Virginia’s noodling rules will be similar to those in other states.

The noodling season will begin each year on June 15 and end on August 31. This puts it at a time of year when water levels are relatively low and catfish cavities are easier to reach.

Fishing will be restricted to daylight hours only, and participants won’t be allowed to use bait or fish attractors to entice the fish from their holes. They also won’t be allowed to use gaffs or spears to subdue their quarry.

Diving underwater to noodle will be allowed, but the use of snorkels, SCUBA gear or any other artificial breathing apparatus will not.

When noodling, participants are to seek fish only in naturally occurring cavities and naturally occurring habitat. Grabbing fish out of artificial cavities or nest boxes will be illegal. It also will be illegal for participants to create artificial cavities or nest boxes for future use.

For the most part, hand-fishing will be allowed only on the state’s rivers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes, Stonecoal Lake, Hawks Nest Lake, Mount Storm Lake and Cheat Lake. Small state-managed impoundments will be off-limits because DNR officials are trying to increase catfish populations there.

The daily creel limit for noodling will be four fish, which will also count as part of a hook-and-line angler’s daily limit. The limit of four is an aggregate total that would include all catfish species.

Only two fish in any daily limit can be blue catfish, and only one fish can exceed 35 inches in length. If the body of water being fished has more restrictive limits, those will be in effect.

Failed Attempts to Legalize Noodling

Over in Wisconsin, current regulations require anyone catching fish to do so with a hook and line, not including special spearing seasons and some provisions allowing the use of nets. But Badger State lawmakers recently tried to make noodling legal as well.

On February 1 this year, Sen. Tom Tiffany introduced a bill that would allow taking catfish and roughfish by hand, and with a bow and arrow or crossbow. The measure received bipartisan support, and passage was recommended by the legislature’s Committee on Sporting Heritage, Mining and Forestry. But it failed to pass.

Before the bill was voted upon, Tiffany called the noodling ban a technicality and said there was no good reason noodling shouldn’t be allowed in Wisconsin.

“It’s actually fairly popular by some people,” Tiffany told a reporter with Wisconsin Public Radio. “I know I’ve heard from a few people up in my district that they go over to the Mississippi (River) and they noodle catfish, and there’s no reason for it to be illegal.”

In 2015, a bill that would have lifted a state ban on noodling failed in Iowa as well.

And a group in Missouri called Noodlers Anonymous saw its efforts to establish a noodling season for Show-Me State participants fail 10 years earlier.

In the early 2000s, that group convinced the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to grant a trial period of legalized hand-fishing in the state. Dubbed an “experimental hand-fishing season,” it was to last for five years, beginning in summer 2005, during which the state’s hand-fishing enthusiasts would be allowed to fish during June and July on the Fabius, Mississippi and St. Francis rivers.

After the second season, though, the MDC pulled the plug on the experiment, due to concerns that noodling could harm catfish populations.

“When noodling occurs is at a point in time when the females are laying eggs in cavities and then the males are coming behind them and protecting those nests,” said MDC Regional Fisheries Supervisor Christopher Kennedy. “So anytime we interrupt that process that nest has a very high percentage rate of failing and it could have dramatic impacts on your populations.”

Texas on Board

Lawmakers in the Lone Star State weren’t swayed by similar arguments. Catching catfish by hand became legal there September 1, 2011 after being prohibited for most of the 20th century.

A bill to legalize noodling passed by a 142-2 margin in the House and unanimously in the Senate. That was well over the two-thirds majority required for the bill to go into effect as soon as it passed.

So now, if you want to plunge into a Texas river or lake, reach blindly into an underwater hole, push your fingers into a big catfish’s bone-crushing maw and grapple with that mad-as-the-dickens, rolling-like-an-alligator, fins-sharp-as-daggers brute until you manage to subdue it (or it subdues you), you can do so with the blessing of Texas lawmakers. All you need is a valid state fishing license and big cojones.

Noodling Interest Grows

Noodling isn’t new. Folks have been grabbing catfish with their hands since at least 1775 when trader-historian James Adair wrote about “a surprising method of fishing under the edges of rocks” among Southern Indians.

“They pull off their red breeches, or their long slip of Stroud cloth, and wrapping it around their arm, so as to reach the lower part of the palm of their right hand, they dive under the rock where the catfish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun, and to watch for prey: as soon as those fierce aquatic animals see that tempting bait, they immediately seize it with the greatest violence, in order to swallow it.  Then is the time for the diver to improve the favorable opportunity: he accordingly opens his hand, seizes the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it … and at last brings it safe ashore.”

Noodling remained popular with pioneer families throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as it was a good way to quickly obtain lots of food. It remained a traditional activity for many Southern and Midwestern families in the first half of the twentieth century as well. But with the advent of modern fishing tackle, boats and equipment, the sport’s practitioners shrank in numbers until they were almost non-existent by the 1960s and ‘70s.

Several things happened that renewed interest in noodling, however. Most important, perhaps, was the making of the 2001 award-winning documentary Okie Noodling. This documentary by Bradley Beesley featured interviews with hardcore handfishing veterans in Oklahoma as well as footage of real noodlers in action. It developed a cult following, and Beesley followed it with a 2008 sequel, Okie Noodling II. Together, the two documentaries have been seen by millions of people around the world.

When Okie Noodling was released, more and more people started attending the Okie Noodling Tournament in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma as well. Beesley started this competition, the first of its kind, as part of his now-famous documentaries. And like the movies, it drew a cult following. What began as an obscure tournament with only a handful of attendees attracted more than 15,000 guests during 2017’s eighteenth anniversary event.

The Okie Noodling Tournament has been covered over the years by the New York Times, ESPN, the BBC, Sports Illustrated, The Jimmy Kimmel Show, The Food Network, National Geographic and Playboy magazine, just to name a few.

Also influential were Catfish Grabblers, Girls Gone Grabbling and Girls Gone Grabbling II, three videos produced by longtime Tennessee noodlers Marty and Fostana Jenkins. The Jenkins started out videoing their noodling excursions just for fun, and soon had accumulated more than eight years of footage showing friends and family members “grabbling,” which the sport is called in some areas. Marty found that every year he was making more and more copies of the exciting grabblin’ tapes so he decided to produce a videotape and sell it. All three videos still are available on DVD.

The publicity spawned by all these productions eventually led to the creation of at least two reality television shows – Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Mudcats – featuring Oklahoma noodling. It was shows such as these, along with intense social media coverage, that jumpstarted the dying noodling phenomenon again. Today, folks just can’t seem to get enough of it.

I was one of the millions of people who got caught up in the noodling craze, and, overwhelmed by a tsunami of beer-induced stupidity one day, I volunteered … yes, volunteered … to try my hand (literally) at it.

I did so at the encouragement of my father-in-law, who had been an ardent noodler for most of his 79 years, and my two brother-in-laws, who had been noodlers slightly less than half a century each.

“Folks may call you the dean of catfishing,” they said, “but you’re not the real dean until you catch a cat barehanded.” Thus was I shamed into trying a pastime I had previously considered insane.

We noodled in a 40-acre private lake full of monster catfish. My father-in-law quickly found a catfish in its hole and encouraged me to dive down and reach in for it.

At this point when you first go noodling, many questions run through your mind. Why am I doing this? Will there be a snake in this hole, or a snapping turtle? Do alligators live here? If a catfish is in the hole, will it bite me? How bad will it hurt?

They say big catfish will swallow your entire hand, start spinning and shred the skin off your arm like a food processor shredding carrots. What will that feel like?

Holding my breath, I felt blindly for the edge of the hole where the catfish lurked, slid my hand inside and prayed my father-in-law wasn’t pulling a prank on me that involved a snapping turtle or snake.

I quickly discovered a catfish was home. It didn’t bite. It didn’t spin. Instead, it shot from the hole like a torpedo from a submarine tube and smashed into my chest. My friends on the shore above me saw big boils of bubbles rising to the surface as the air left my lungs. Then they watched, amazed, as a 250-pound man jumped from the water and onto the bank, much like a migrating salmon ascending a waterfall.

Blood dripped from my arm where the catfish’s spines had brushed me.

“What happened?” my father-in-law asked.

“Something bit me,” I said, breathlessly. “A snake or a snapping turtle, maybe. I’m finished noodling.”

“Dean of catfishing, indeed,” my brother-in-laws chortled.

I counted my fingers. Ten. I still had all ten.

My noodling adventure ended then and there, and I haven’t gone again since.