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Noodlin'

You've got to be crazy to go noodlin' where you reach into dark holes and hope that what bites your hand is a catfish.
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Lee McFarlin learned pretty early on that catfish grabbing was not for the faint of heart. "When I was a
young kid, they called my dad and asked us to come down to the Cimarron River to look for a noodler," he recalls. It seems a local man had disappeared while searching for flatheads in the red-clay waters of a northern Oklahoma waterway. Like McFarlin and his father, this fellow was a noodler, a fisherman who pursued his whiskered quarry without such amenities as rods, reels or bait, preferring instead to rely on the 10 lures Mother Nature had secured to his two hands.



"We all figured he'd gotten himself killed," McFarlin says as we loiter in his driveway, "but we didn't know for sure." Well, not until a search party pulled his waterlogged corpse from the Cimarron two days later. "His skull was crushed," remembers McFarlin. "He had his arm deep in a hole, and a beaver came up and crunched him while he was going at it." In case I have failed to grasp his meaning, McFarlin uses his hands and my head to reenact the scene. It sets me to thinking about the size of a beaver big enough to crush a man's head in its maw, and why it would want to.



McFarlin's pal Doug Hutchinson shakes his head and lets out a quiet whistle to underscore the tale. Then he returns to the task at hand-skinning

the 3-foot-long flathead he and McFarlin have just pulled from the waters of a nearby lake. A wet sucking sound cuts the hot, still air as Hutchinson divorces the skin from its owner.



"To really understand noodling," says McFarlin, turning over a fillet knife in his hands, "you've got to get in and try it. You can't just sit on the sidelines." He grins, and his carroty eyebrows dance above his pale blue eyes. "It's not a spectator sport."


Stick Your
Hand in There

McFarlin has a stump speech he likes to deliver about noodling. His teenage son, who shares his father's red hair, blue eyes and passion for handfishing, has heard the oration so many times he now does a passable imitation. "When the wheat starts to turn," he intones in an exaggerated bassa voce, "that means it's noodling season."



Right around Memorial Day, as
Oklahoma's wavin' wheat takes on an amber hue, catfish find their way to the warm shallows to spawn. After the
females lay their eggs, the males stand sentry over the nests, aerating their broods and chasing off predators.



Equipped with only their bare hands and a hard-won knowledge of local catfish breeding haunts, McFarlin and his intrepid ilk spend much of the late spring and early summer waist-deep in the Sooner State's lakes and rivers. Systematically canvassing an underwater network of nooks and crannies known only to them and their inner noodling circles, they probe under submerged rocks and in deep holes. Their hope is to connect with the well-muscled body of a flathead (the only type of catfish that can legally be taken by hand in Oklahoma), or at least a cache of eggs. "If you can't find that fish," McFarlin explains, "smack those eggs"-a rubbery glob. "Then raise your hand up, and he'll be right there biting you."



With a little luck, the noodler jams his thumbs into the corners of the fish's mouth and hooks his fingers under its gills, affording a firm hold on the fish and offering protection from the thousands of tiny maxillary teeth that carpet its jaws. So long as the noodler is able to maintain his grip and keep the fish confined to its lair, the cat will have little chance of wrestling free. Then it's "just"-as McFarlin puts it-a matter of immobilizing the fish. Usually that involves clenching the cat's tail in a bone-crunching grip or, with a big fish, simultaneously bear-hugging and sitting on it. Once subdued, the fish is put on the stringer, which might present a whole new set of problems if the cat is still feisty.



Not surprisingly, few catches go by the book. For starters, finng a catfish nest is no simple task. It could be
under a rock, inside a submerged oil drum, beneath a brush pile or under a rotted tree. Or in an unassuming hole 9 feet below the surface of a silt-clouded lake. And every time noodlers stick their hands into one of these would-be catfish motels, it's a leap of faith. For when it comes to picking out nursery space, catfish share an aesthetic with numerous other forms of marine life.



"When you reach into a hole, especially in a river, you never know what you'll find," says Danny King, a veteran noodler whose forays into dark orifices have met with alligator gars, loggerhead turtles, water moccasins and, thankfully, the occasional catfish. "Those big holes could be three blocks long, and everything in that part of the river is trapped right in that hole. So when you stick your hand in there, you're just telling yourself, 'Lord, I hope all I feel is a fish.'"



Then there's the catfish itself, a member of a family of barbeled brutes whose smooth, scaleless skin lends the sport its name-sort of. "That son of a gun is like a wet noodle when you try to catch him," McFarlin says. "He's just slimy, slippery." So the only way to get hold of one is by its maw.



Although no rougher than dull saw blades, the fish's many rows of inward-facing teeth present a daunting challenge to even the most seasoned noodler. If a big cat clamps down on exposed flesh, it begins gyrating wildly. With room to spin, it will whittle the extremity down to the bone-and that's if you're lucky.
"Once they start rolling, you're not going to stop them," says McFarlin. "Just roll with them, and pretty soon they'll let go." He waits a beat. "So long as they don't drown you first."



But teeth aren't the only weapons in a catfish's arsenal. With only a few feet to accelerate, the smallest flatheads are capable of delivering bruising blows. And big flatheads (the fish have been known to exceed 120 pounds) can knock grown men clean off their feet and crack a few ribs in the process.



Even a catfish's hiding place can become a potentially lethal man trap. "You'll be underwater with your hand way up in a little hole-and what I'm calling a little hole is one that's real tight around your arm-and all of a sudden you're out of air," says McFarlin. "You'll literally have to tell yourself, 'Calm down,' and remember how you got in there. Because that's the only way you're going to get your arm back out of the hole."



Noodling, says King, takes a rare type of person. "You've got to be about half crazy."



[pagebreak]
It Works"]
Trouble Is,
It Works

Back in 1775, a trader and historian named James Adair described "a surprising method of fishing under the edges of rocks" employed by Southern Indians. "They pull off their red breeches, or their long slip of Stroud cloth," wrote Adair, "and wrapping it round their arm, so as to reach the lower part of the palm of their right hand, they dive under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun." When the "fierce aquatic animals" lock down on the fleshy bait, the diver "seizes the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it against the crevices of the rock, and at last brings it safe ashore."



Why the Indians first chose to forgo fishhooks and spears in favor of fingers is anyone's guess. But more than two centuries later, their legacy of noodling (or, as it is variously known around the country, hoggin', doggin', thumpin', stumpin', grabbin', grapplin', grabblin' and ticklin') survives. Catfishing by hand is, perhaps, one of the original extreme sports. But unlike so many adrenalized pursuits, it owes its continued existence-at least in part-to its very utility.



"I don't know of any way you can catch more fat fish and put more meat in your freezer than you can by noodling," McFarlin says. "There's times I've put thirty quart bags of fillets in my freezer from one afternoon of fishing. I've cleaned them till my fillet knives got hot, let the knives cool down for an hour, then gone out and started at them again."



Tales of too-hot-to-handle knives, like many a noodling yarn, have a
certain fish-story quality to them. But fish biologist Dana Winkelman, Ph.D., has studied catfishing extensively and has found one kernel of truth: Seasoned catfish grabbers are remarkably effective. "Their catch rates are just phenomenal," he says. "They never get skunked. Never."



Perhaps it is noodling's very effectiveness that has led the vast majority of states to outlaw it. In Texas, the
legislature has classified catfish
grabbing-along with misdeeds such as DWI and public intoxication-
as a class-C misdemeanor, saddling noodlers with criminal records and fines of up to $500. Larry Young, the state's chief of fisheries enforcement, explains the prohibition as "basically a resource issue. The people that engage in this type of activity on a consistent basis generally take the bigger fish and deplete the resource of the bigger spawning fish."



Winkelman, for one, questions this reasoning. "The idea that noodlers are catching bigger fish just doesn't pan out," he says. "And as for spawning, it doesn't really matter that you caught the fish a week before or a week after the spawn. Either way, that fish is not going to spawn the next year."



He concedes noodling could pose a threat to catfish populations. "If a lot of people did it, it would be a problem," he says. Try as I might, I can't envision circumstances that would ignite a mass noodling movement.



In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the creature Gollum brings noodling to the big screen when he snatches a catfish from a cave pool with his bare hands, then devours it raw. Sadly for the sport, when it comes to role models, you can't do much worse than Gollum.


Stop Me
Before I Noodle

Noodling's image problem isn't surprising. In the fishing hierarchy, where you are what you catch, catfish rank low. Consequently, chances are you won't come across any noodlers who are doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. Noodlers generally are guys who aren't afraid to get dirty.



Take, for example, the 2001 documentary about the sport, Okie Noodling. The film focuses on four seasoned catfish grabbers-a janitor, a mechanic, a sanitation worker and McFarlin, a plumber. "Take a look at noodlers," says McFarlin. "They're all rugged. Sorta like Dan Haggerty. You know who Dan Haggerty was, right?"



I stare back blankly.



"You know, Grizzly Adams."



A tour of McFarlin's home helps to reinforce his point. It houses mounted bucks, elk and trout, a freezer full of venison, bass and flatheads, and his pets-a red heeletimes I've put thirty quart bags of fillets in my freezer from one afternoon of fishing. I've cleaned them till my fillet knives got hot, let the knives cool down for an hour, then gone out and started at them again."



Tales of too-hot-to-handle knives, like many a noodling yarn, have a
certain fish-story quality to them. But fish biologist Dana Winkelman, Ph.D., has studied catfishing extensively and has found one kernel of truth: Seasoned catfish grabbers are remarkably effective. "Their catch rates are just phenomenal," he says. "They never get skunked. Never."



Perhaps it is noodling's very effectiveness that has led the vast majority of states to outlaw it. In Texas, the
legislature has classified catfish
grabbing-along with misdeeds such as DWI and public intoxication-
as a class-C misdemeanor, saddling noodlers with criminal records and fines of up to $500. Larry Young, the state's chief of fisheries enforcement, explains the prohibition as "basically a resource issue. The people that engage in this type of activity on a consistent basis generally take the bigger fish and deplete the resource of the bigger spawning fish."



Winkelman, for one, questions this reasoning. "The idea that noodlers are catching bigger fish just doesn't pan out," he says. "And as for spawning, it doesn't really matter that you caught the fish a week before or a week after the spawn. Either way, that fish is not going to spawn the next year."



He concedes noodling could pose a threat to catfish populations. "If a lot of people did it, it would be a problem," he says. Try as I might, I can't envision circumstances that would ignite a mass noodling movement.



In The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the creature Gollum brings noodling to the big screen when he snatches a catfish from a cave pool with his bare hands, then devours it raw. Sadly for the sport, when it comes to role models, you can't do much worse than Gollum.


Stop Me
Before I Noodle

Noodling's image problem isn't surprising. In the fishing hierarchy, where you are what you catch, catfish rank low. Consequently, chances are you won't come across any noodlers who are doctors, lawyers or corporate executives. Noodlers generally are guys who aren't afraid to get dirty.



Take, for example, the 2001 documentary about the sport, Okie Noodling. The film focuses on four seasoned catfish grabbers-a janitor, a mechanic, a sanitation worker and McFarlin, a plumber. "Take a look at noodlers," says McFarlin. "They're all rugged. Sorta like Dan Haggerty. You know who Dan Haggerty was, right?"



I stare back blankly.



"You know, Grizzly Adams."



A tour of McFarlin's home helps to reinforce his point. It houses mounted bucks, elk and trout, a freezer full of venison, bass and flatheads, and his pets-a red heele

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