Caveman Catfishing

By Keith “Catfish” Sutton

It’s the oldest method of catfishing, practiced since the time of Neanderthals. Are you brave enough to try it?

You don’t need bait to catch catfish … not if you’re a noodler.

Noodling requires only two items: your bare hands. That’s right. I said bare hands. “Caveman fishing,” a buddy of mine calls it. In some areas, folks call it hogging, tickling, grabbling or dogging.

Smart noodlers restrict their hand-grabbing activity to waters no deeper than the noodler is tall. One must be able to surface and breathe to avoid possible catastrophe.

Smart noodlers restrict their hand-grabbing activity to waters no deeper than the noodler is tall. One must be able to surface and breathe to avoid possible catastrophe.

The noodler wades into a body of water where catfish lurk, then reaches underwater and starts feeling for holes in the bank, in logs, under rocks and so forth. This might be a muskrat or beaver burrow in a bank, a crevice in shoreline riprap, a hollow log or any dark hideaway. Catfish occupy such nooks at times throughout the year, but are most likely to be holed up during spawning season in late spring and early summer when laying, guarding and fanning their eggs. Females lay their eggs, then a male cat guards them. When the noodler reaches in, if a cat is on guard, it’ll bite him. Then he can grab the fish—maybe—and pull it out.

The deal is the noodler never knows for sure what’s in the hole. It might be a catfish. Then again, it might be a snapping turtle, beaver or snake. Mr. Noodler’s holding his breath, getting all tingly with excitement, while he thrusts his hands in dark underwater hidey-holes to see if anybody’s home. He loves this stuff. He thrives on the adrenaline rush.

Noodlers better have tough hands or lots of hide could come up missing during battles with hard-biting, death-rolling catfish.

Noodlers better have tough hands or lots of hide could come up missing during battles with hard-biting, death-rolling catfish.

Some noodlers prefer to lie on their belly on the bank and reach into holes. Most, however, enter shallow water—never as deep as the noodler is tall—to probe likely catfish hideouts. A short cane pole may first be inserted to determine if anyone is home. If a catfish is, and it’s spawning season, the fish will attack the pole, rattling it. The noodler then surfaces for air and prepares to capture the cat with his hands.

If Mr. Noodler finds a hole empty, he moves on and finds another hole. If somebody is home, well … that’s where things can get interesting.

“…reaching blind into an underwater hidey-hole, hoping to corner and grab a giant catfish, is an allure too powerful to resist.”

 

If a cat attacks, the noodler attempts to grasp it by the mouth, gill cover or anything affording a grip. When noodling outside the spawning season, the hole is blocked, and the noodler tries to coax the cat’s mouth open to gain a handhold. Wiggling one’s fingers may do the trick, but often as not, the noodler must rely on feel to find the cat’s mouth or gill cover and work his fingers in. Once a good grip is attained, if ever, the noodler attempts to resurface with quarry in tow.

At this point, the reason for noodling in shallow water becomes crystal clear. If one cannot quickly stand with his mouth and nostrils above the water, one might find himself in a sticky predicament. Even then, battling a 50-pound-plus cat to the surface—and this is often done—may require extraordinary effort. Many square inches of the noodler’s hide may be removed in the process. This is not a sport for the faint of heart.

It’s hard to imagine the first brave soul who reached underwater and probed a dark, watery nook for dinner.  But imagine it we must, for noodling leaves no traces.  It is, as one writer describes it, “as ephemeral as some of the boasts it inspires.”

Trader-historian James Adair was perhaps the first to leave a written record when, in 1775, he described “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 had been largely forgotten when I first did it more than two decades ago, but it has since grown in popularity and developed into quite the craze thanks to TV shows, magazine articles and the internet. As a result, lots of testosterone-charged twenty-somethings these days seem to be chomping at the bit to try their, uh, hand at noodling for catfish.

Before you knuckleheads give it a try, though, there’s more you need to know.

When you take a plunge underwater in some catfish-infested river or lake and run your hand up in a hole where a catfish the size of a young steer might be guarding its eggs, something happens you don’t see on noodling TV shows. That catfish gets one look at those pretty pink fingers and its walnut-sized brain sends a message straight to its jaws … intruder alert! The fish then bites you—hard. Smash-your-hand-with-a-sledge-hammer hard. Turn-your-fingernails-purple hard. Scare-your-ass-to-death hard.
What happens next ain’t no treat either. When that behemoth has your digits clamped in its maw, it starts spinning in its version of the alligator death roll. The fish’s coarse-grit teeth will rip your skin like last month’s bills going through a paper shredder.
Always get a powerful grip on the monster’s mouth, or else bones could get broken or digits lost. Or you could get dead.
On the bright side, you could come out of it earning a cool nickname like Nubbins or Two-finger Jack.
All hardcore noodlers have tough, calloused hands, and they got them through old-fashioned hard work—hammering, hoisting, hoeing, and heaving. If you want to join this fraternity of brave sports, work on your grip and toughen your hide before you take the plunge. Until you can crack walnuts and drive nails with your bare hands, you best just stay at home.

Author Keith Sutton struggles to land a big blue cat caught by hand on a noodling excursion. Subduing big fish like this bare-handed can be difficult and dangerous. Theresa Sutton photo

Author Keith Sutton struggles to land a big blue cat caught by hand on a noodling excursion. Subduing big fish like this bare-handed can be difficult and dangerous. Theresa Sutton photo

Check local regulations, too. In some states, noodling is illegal. In others, it’s permitted, but only during special seasons with a variety of restrictions. Regardless of regulations, noodlers should voluntarily restrict their harvest, protecting a resource that is extremely vulnerable to this ancient method of fishing, especially during the spawn.

One also should consider the many inherent dangers. Encountering snakes, turtles and other dangerous underwater denizens doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Crippling injuries can result. Reaching in holes also can lead to serious cuts, so up-to-date tetanus shots are a must. If an arm or hand gets stuck, or if an exceptionally large cat is tackled, the noodler can drown. Risks are high. Participants should be aware death or serious injury can result.

The closest most fishermen will come to hand-grabbing catfish is reaching across the table and snatching a fried fillet off a platter. That’s also dangerous, but only when you’re sharing a table with hungry friends and there’s only one fillet left.

For some, however, reaching blind into an underwater hidey-hole, hoping to corner and grab a giant catfish, is an allure too powerful to resist. It’s foolish. It’s dangerous. Yes, even idiotic. But it’s catfishing in its purest, most primitive, most electrifying form.

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