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Noodling What Is It And Is It Legal

Updated on July 11, 2014

Noodling is the practice and sport of fishing for catfish using only one's bare hands. Noodling may be called catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hogging, or tickling, depending on region. (Kentuckians call it dogging, while Nebraskans prefer stumping). South Georgia writer Harry Crews, in his autobiographical novel A Childhood, uses the term "cooning" to describe the practice. Despite these colorful names, noodling is better explained by the name handfishing; however, this term is less popular among those who participate in noodling. Only four states in the United States have laws explicitly permitting handfishing: Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Missouri has an experimental noodling season in 2005 on sections of three rivers, from June 1 through July 15. Noodlers Anonymous argues that the season is doomed to fail, though, because these swimming pool sections are too dangerous, too crowded, or otherwise not desirable for the sport. The term "noodling", although today used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand-based fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod & reel, speargun, etc., but this usage is much less common.

A man with a fish caught by noodling

Noodling as a Sport

In 1989, The Late Show with David Letterman introduced American popular culture to the local phenomenon of noodling when Oklahoma noodler Jerry Rider climbed into a tank with a catfish and caught it using his bare hands. For a time Rider became the face of noodling, and appeared in countless news stories and numerous newspaper articles around this time as well. Rider even traveled to India to demonstrate noodling while visiting the country for the weekend. Most of these stories were light-hearted variety pieces with little information — very few of them looked at the practice as a serious sport, as noodlers may have wanted.

The closest thing to a serious examination of noodling accessible to popular culture was a documentary released in 2001 called Okie Noodling, directed by local documentarian Bradley Beesley. The documentary covers the history and current practice of noodling as it is practiced in Oklahoma. During the course of the documentary the realization that there were no official noodling contests spawned the First Annual Okie Noodling Tournament. The tournament brought in young blood from across Oklahoma to a sport mostly passed down from father to son. The release of the documentary and its subsequent airing on PBS affiliates has, if not made the sport more popular, raised its profile to more than just a local phenomenon.

Although not mentioning women in noodling explicitly, through interviews Okie Noodling helps to explain women's relationship to the sport. Although some women relate stories of times they have noodled, the majority of practicing noodlers were and are men. Many of the male noodlers explained how they began noodling when their father took them out, and how they planned to bring their sons into the world of noodling. Also, as others who have written on noodling have expressed, if noodling is to be considered a sport, then (at least to outsiders) it is most definitely an extreme sport, which tend to draw a disproportionate number of male followers.

Noodling was also featured in a pilot episode of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs which premiered on November 14, 2003. In this episode, host Mike Rowe joins two men from Oklahoma as they noodle for flatheads. The segment ends after Rowe noodles his own fish and the men clean and enjoy their well-earned catch.

Check Out These Noodling Photos. Can You Even Imagine Catching A Catfish Like These?

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Noodling:The Ballad of Bobby Sparks

Gerhard Goes Noodling in Oklahoma

Hush Puppies

Noodling Dangers

Although few confirmed deaths have been recorded in the recent history of noodling due to its obscurity, there have recently been unconfirmed reports of a noodler from the mid-south reaching into a catfish hole, only to be greeted by a group of water moccasins which fatally bit him. Despite that, almost every instance of noodling involves minor wounds, due to the "arm-as-bait" process of noodling. Although superficial cuts are received with every catfish caught, this can be avoided to an extent by wearing gloves and other protective clothing (although most noodlers take no such precautions). A slight danger of drowning exists, as most holes are far enough down in the water that diving is required to reach into them.

A person confident in their swimming abilities may be caught off guard by the sudden added strain of carrying a large fish to the surface. Spotters can alleviate this danger, but it is still present. It is possible that statistics on noodling deaths are not available or accurate due to the depths at which many catfish live. A severely wounded noodler ten to twenty feet underwater might not have the physical capacity to return safely to the surface of the water, resulting in the official cause of death as death by drowning. Another danger lies in one's clothes getting tangled or snagged on roots or rocks.

To avoid this, many noodlers will dive wearing nothing more than their shorts. Noodling naked, and thereby eliminating any chance of catching one's clothes, has not been documented since the possible injuries in such a condition are simply not worth the risk. The largest danger posed to noodlers are other forms of aquatic life found in catfish holes. By far more dangerous than catfish are beavers and snapping turtles, who will take over abandoned catfish holes as homes of their own. These animals are always on the mind of experienced noodlers. Okie Noodling provided anecdotal evidence that beavers have gnawed off the hands and arms of former noodlers, but no disabled noodlers were presented as proof.

The one thing to watch out for is big turtles when you go noodling. I suggest wearing gloves to give your hands some protection. This is really important. Most of the time people who go noodling are going to be reaching into holes where big turtles, beavers, or snakes may be waiting. So be sure to wear gloves and feel around carefully in holes under lake and riverbanks.

I would suggest never going noodling along as this could prove to be disastrous especially if a big turtle was to grab you in a hole under a bank or a snake was to bite you. So always take a partner with you when you go noodling.

I suggest wearing a pair of old tennis shoes so you'll be able to get a good grip on the floor of the river or lake bed and not fall as easy. It will also help to keep your feet from getting cut up. So yes always wear tennis shoes when you go noodling.

Ann Tittle Noodling

Noodling for Giant Catfish

Handfishers, or "noodlers," Cristi Snyder, Fostana Jenkins, and Betsy Dougherty search for flathead catfish, a species found in waterways in the South and Midwest U.S. Handfishers probe and prod for the holes where the fish lurk during breeding season. They then dive down and reach into the underwater lairs, hoping that a monster "cat" will take the proffered bait—the noodler's hand.

To avoid drowning or other accidents, noodlers recommend fishing in teams. The extra hands can also help block escape routes for wary fish.


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