Noodlers reach where sane men fear to trod

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There are a few outdoor adventures I’ve never tried and never will. Skydiving, rock climbing, and bungee jumping come immediately to mind.

Noodling is another. I try to avoid activities that put my life or body parts at risk.

Noodling, also called hand-grabbing, is a form of extreme catfishing that’s popular and legal in some southern states. Early settlers learned it from Native Americans.

I first learned of noodling during my Oklahoma years. I had some students who would do almost anything to put fresh meat on the table. When they first explained noodling, I was skeptical. Then they brought in photographs. When I passed on an invitation to join them one Saturday afternoon, I’m certain their opinion of me plummeted.

Here, fishy, fishy

Noodlers use their hands to probe underwater holes, stumps, and burrows. This is where large (20-60 pounds) catfish lurk in murky water. The idea is to tempt catfish with wiggling fingers or annoy them by probing their nesting areas.

Some noodlers even place 55-gallon metal drums in catfish habitat to create spawning beds. Such protected areas are prime nests sites, and noodlers have a better chance of finding nests. It’s like birders who put up nest boxes to attract bluebirds or chickadees.

Male catfish protecting their nests are very aggressive and strike at intruders, even if it’s just a hand waving a few fingers. After the catfish bites the hand and “swallows” the forearm, the noodler works his hand through one of the gill slits. Then he hauls the catfish up and into a boat.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. There’s usually a lot of blood as the catfish’s teeth rake the noodler’s arm and hand. And that’s if everything goes according to plan — that is, there’s a catfish in the hole and not a cottonmouth, muskrat, beaver, or snapping turtle.

Snap, goes the finger

Actually, hand-grabbing snapping turtles is also called noodling, and that sounds even crazier than hand-grabbing catfish. A big snapper can bite a finger to the bone and even snap it off.

Noodling for snappers means using your hands to feel along under stream banks and submerged muskrat burrows hoping for the jagged edges of the hind end of a snapper’s shell.

The idea is that resting snappers face towards the bank. In that case, you grab the tail and pull, keeping the snapper’s head well away from all appendages.

If the snapper is facing the stream, you could have a problem. You’re now disturbing a resting snapper with your precious dangling fingers. This is the main reason noodling for snapping turtles is crazy.

Days of lore

I recall when I was a boy, there were some older men who would bring big, freshly caught snapping turtles to show off to the kids who gathered at the local general store. Usually they displayed them in a bushel basket or a big metal bucket. They claimed they were hand-caught and headed for the stew pot.

Some of these guys even lacked a finger or two, which they claimed to have lost to snappers, but even then I suspected they just picked the turtles up as they crossed the road. The missing digits were probably lost at work.

See for yourself

If noodling sounds insane, like something you must see to believe, you’re right. You can plan a trip Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma on July 11 for the 10th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament or watch for highlights on an fishing show on television.

Or Google “noodling for catfish” or “noodling for snapping turtles,” and you’ll find links to a variety of You-Tube videos.

Fortunately, noodling for catfish is illegal in most northern states. Catching reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand, usually requires a fishing license and hand grabbing may be legal. Check with the state wildlife agency for laws in your state.

Upon reflection, I think noodling deserves a spot in Jeff Foxworthy‘s popular redneck act — “You might be a redneck if your idea of a fun Sunday afternoon is noodling for catfish.”

Or, “You might be a redneck if you’re a veteran snapping turtle noodler, and your nickname is ‘Stumpy.’”

About the Author

Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. Send questions and comments to scottshalaway@gmail.com. You can also visit his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com. More Stories by Scott Shalaway

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