Cypress boughs dangle over the still, mocha-muddy waters of an Oklahoma swamp as a gaggle of drawling Southern country boys walks waist deep through the sleepy current. The men, shirtless and tanned, feel their way with their feet, exploring for stumps or root tangles—and when a foot strikes a submerged structure, the man kneels, almost disappearing, and examines the underwater snag with his reaching arms. As his friends gather around to watch, the man grins, takes a deep breath, gives a sly wink and disappears. The brown water settles as the circle of men stand by, and the seconds tick past. No: This is not some strange baptism of the swamp country, or a rendition of Marco Polo, or a college fraternity initiation ritual. Just watch.
After 15 seconds, the top of the submerged man's head appears again, and the water around him begins to swirl. It seems he's struggling underwater, and after several more seconds, he bursts out of the river with a wild yeehaw howl as his friends whoop and cheer. The man's arms are reluctant to follow, however, for he is hauling something up to the surface—a living creature, it seems—and in another moment, it explodes from the water, thrashing like a bobcat, three-feet head to tail, mustached like Rollie Fingers and with a mouth like a toad clamped on the man's hands.
The animal is a flathead catfish, the number-one target in a game of unarmed man against fish called "noodling." In this peculiar sport of the Deep South, barehanded men (and a few women) shove their hands into the lairs of catfish and goad the animals into biting. Catfish lack large teeth, and as a fish clomps down the noodler grabs back, and once he or she has firmly gripped the lower jaw of the fish, it only takes some muscle work to remove it from its hole. But here's the most controversial part: Noodling takes place in June and July, precisely when large male catfish sit on nests of eggs, aggressively guarding the fertile clumps from predators. The big fish, which may weigh more than 70 pounds but usually go less than 20, will bite at almost anything that meets them at the door to their lairs—whether bass, bird or hand of a hillbilly. If the catfish are kept to be eaten or if the flustered animals fail to return to their nests even if they are released, the future brood is doomed.
Noodling, which may have originated in the pre-Columbian era, began going mainstream about a decade ago when a filmmaker named Bradley Beesley, an Oklahoma native, took an interest in the sport. In 2001, Beesley released an hour-long documentary called Okie Noodling in which he follows a group of noodlers doing their thing—laughing, splashing, screaming expletives as huge cats chomp their hands, and erupting from the water in glorious slow motion with 50-pound flatheads latched to their fists. Beesley was so enthralled by the activity and the surrounding culture that he became a noodler himself in the course of his work. In 2008, Beesley released a sequel to the first film, and just two weeks ago a miniseries called "Mudcats" wrapped up, but viewers can still catch reruns. Or you might also go to Oklahoma for the 13th Okie Noodling Tournament, which arrives on June 23. The event, which Beesley helped launch in part to promote his first film, includes live music and a catfish eating contest.
In an interview last week, Beesley described for me the thrills of noodling.
"It's the most exhilarating thing I've ever done," Beesley said. It is also, he added, "the fairest way to combat these beasts." Beesley says the sensation of having a catfish the size of a bulldog bite one's bare hand is a particularly thrilling one. "It hurts," Beesley conceded. "It's painful, like a rat trap with sand paper. The fish start spinning and thrashing. You don't get any deep cuts, but they turn your hand into hamburger meat." But many noodlers, Beesley said, choose not to wear gloves to better experience the direct skin-to-fish contact.
Beesley is quick to explain that noodling rarely injures the catfish—except for those that get battered and fried, which may be the majority of the landed cats. Though Beesley says many noodlers let their quarry go (and that the fish go straight back to their nests), other sources, like Texas fishing guide Chad Ferguson, quoted last year in a Texas Tribune article, seem to believe that most cats caught by noodlers are destined for the kitchen. Most online videos of noodlers at work show the hand-fishers tossing their catfish into boats or clipping them to stringers, and many states prohibit noodling precisely due to uncertainty about the negative effects of removing the largest breeding catfish from a population. Only seven states, it seems, allow noodling, with Texas having legalized the sport just last year.
But killing the largest breeding catfish of a population isn't the only concern of anti-noodling conservationists, rod-and-reel fishermen and authorities; the other is the common noodler technique of tossing junk, like large pipes and furniture, into lakes to provide catfish with nesting structure and themselves with an advantage in finding the fish when the nesting season comes.
At last year's noodling tournament in Pauls Valley, which drew more than 10,000 spectators, 183 people participated in the hunt for catfish. Among these competitors, 37 landed fish. The biggest was a 60-pound flathead wrested from its den by Mark Rowan, who took $1,000 for the prize and also won $400 more for having the heaviest stringer of catfish—150 pounds, to be exact. The top female noodler was Brandy Sparks, who caught a 45-pounder, and the winner of the kids' division was Dakota Garrett, who took a 42-pound flathead.
The blue catfish is another resident of American swamp and slough country, and readers of Mark Twain may remember that Huckleberry Finn and Jim caught a catfish as large as a man. That, without doubt, would have been a blue. Noodlers certainly take blue catfish, though in some states blues, if not necessarily flatheads, are protected from the harassment.
Just how many men, women and children shove their hands into catfish lairs in America is uncertain, though officials in Missouri, where noodling is illegal, estimate that 2,000 people hand-fish for cats. Meanwhile, the game is catching on abroad. In the great rivers of Europe, for instance, hands are appearing at the den doors of the legendary wels catfish, which may weigh as much as a bear and which, like catfish in America, get ornery during nesting season.
Noodling has its risks, and every year newspaper reports tell of noodlers drowned when their hands or feet or heads become stuck below the surface, or when surprise currents drag them into deeper waters. Beesley guesses that in Oklahoma, "one or two" people drown each year while hand-hunting for catfish. But alligators and water moccasins are not the threats that the media sometimes makes them out to be. "That's been sensationalized," Beesley said. In his 13 years of documenting noodlers at work in Oklahoma, he once saw a man surface with a non-poisonous snake on his arm, and once with a snapping turtle.
"And there was one guy who was bitten by a beaver," Beesley said.
Finding catfish is not always easy. It takes knowledge of the swamp and its underwater geography, and it takes some luck, too—and many a noodling excursion becomes, in the end, just a walk in the woods, under cypress and sun, waist deep in the big muddy.