There’s a part of me that really enjoys getting in a fight. Now I’m not saying that I’m one of those guys who’ll swat the hat off a cowboy’s head or make lewd comments about your gal in a bar. I’m not out there looking for trouble. However, I wrestled and boxed during high school, played rugby, worked as a bouncer during and after college, and recently joined a martial arts gym. This isn’t because I’m an inherently violent guy or because I take some strange pleasure in dealing out or being in pain. I just find satisfaction in challenging myself physically and a primal happiness in coming out on top in a mano-a-mano contest. When you combine this love of the fight with my love for all things fishing, it’s easy to see why I’m completely fascinated with the sport of catfish noodling.
For those unfamiliar, catfish noodling—also known as grabbling, hogging, catfisting, graveling, or stumping—is the art of wading or swimming out into the water and probing underwater holes with your bare hands so that an angry catfish can chomp down them.
This allows you to grab the fish and bring it to the surface without the use of hook, line, or rod. It’s a primal method of angling that puts you in a fight with a giant fish on its home turf and leaves you tired, bruised, and bleeding by the end of the day, but far from broken.
The first time I went noodling and found myself manhandling a pissed-off 30-pound flathead catfish to the boat, I felt like I’d just been locked in a watery cage with Andre The Giant. But by the time we got to the next fishing spot, I wiped the blood from my wrist, coughed up the water from my lungs, and was ready to dive in again.
Thanks to the rise in popularity of outdoor culture on both social media and primetime television and streaming networks, a lot of folks think of noodling as a fairly new practice. It’s actually one of the oldest recognized fishing methods in the country. It was first documented by the Irish immigrant, trader, and historian James Adair in 1775, who wrote of different Native American tribes catching catfish by hand in the rivers around South Carolina. Later noodling was picked up by many 18th-century Scottish immigrants who used a similar method of hand-catching salmon and trout in their own country called “tickling.”
Noodling’s popularity peaked in the US during the Great Depression when it became the easiest way for poor and struggling families to put fresh food on the table. However, this popularity eventually led to the sport’s downfall as many states noticed the effect noodling was having on catfish populations, who are usually spawning when they’re being targeted by noodlers, as well as how dangerous the sport of catfish noodling is for anglers. Many noodlers drowned while attempting to fill their freezers with catfish fillets and so noodling was eventually made illegal in all but four states.
Nevertheless, noodling was still done in the shadows, becoming an outlaw fishing method that continued to rise in popularity while remaining in the background of angling society. So much so that at the beginning of the new millennium a sort of noodling renaissance seemed to sweep across the South and Midwest. Many different state legislations began to recognize the legitimacy of noodling and the deep roots the sport had within fishing culture and so between 2001 and 2018, 12 other states legalized the practice. Today, noodling is legal in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. This grand expansion has led a lot of catfish enthusiasts to put down their heavy rods, limb lines, and stink bait, and pull on their swim trunks to try their luck at catching catfish by hand.
As previously mentioned, noodling can be dangerous. During the spawn when hand anglers are targeting the fish, catfish are extremely aggressive. Both flathead and blue cats, the primary species targeted by noodlers, can be massive and weigh anywhere from 10 to 100 pounds. These fish are extremely powerful and more than capable of dragging or holding an inexperienced noodler under the water and drowning them.
Furthermore, it’s not just catfish that occupy the rivers, lakes, and swamps where noodlers are sticking their bare hands. Creatures like snapping turtles, poisonous snakes, alligators, and even otters and beavers inhabit the same type of spots that noodler's hunt and present potential hazards. So, if you’re interested in trying your hand at noodling, it’s probably best to not just jump in and start haphazardly shoving your arms into underwater crevices. Instead, set up your first noodling expedition with an experienced grabbler or guide like Dennis Redden of Redden Outfitters in Western Kentucky.
“I definitely recommend going with somebody who can show you what to do,” Redden told Meat Eater. “If you don’t, you might hurt yourself or not come back alive. When I take people out, I go in first to make sure there’s a fish in the spot, then I’ll block up the hole with my foot and have the client come out. I’ll explain what’s about to happen then I’ll let them take a good breath of air and get out of the way to coach them through it.”
Catfish can be found during spawning seasons in a variety of different locations. From holes in the bank, to beneath washed-out boat ramps, to old culverts, if the fish can cram itself in the hole and has enough room to lay their eggs and guard them against potential predators, they’ll do it. However, because of the potential dangers of putting your hands blindly into underwater holes, Dennis recommends building and placing boxes in the water so you not only know where to look for catfish but also so you’ll have control over the situation.
“We’ll build small wooden boxes that are about 3 to 4 feet long with an 11x9 hole cut into one side,” said Redden. “That may not seem big enough, but those fish can shove themselves into some tight places. My biggest was a 72-pound blue cat that you wouldn’t have thought could fit through an 11x9 inch hole but it did, and if they can get in there, you can get them out. I’ll sink the boxes in 4 to 5 feet of water in the back of bays or along the riverbank that is close to deeper water, which seems to be key. They’re just like deer stands because some spots will work a few times or not at all and others will catch fish for me year after year.”
When catfish find the boxes during the spawning season, the male fish will enter first and clean it out of any loose rocks or built-up mud along the bottom. Then the female will enter the box and lay her eggs and the male will move back in to fertilize them. Often both fish will stay in the hole to guard their eggs, making quite a surprise for any noodler who sticks their hand in the hole.
“If there’s two fish in the hole it can be a heck of a time,” said Redden. “But most of the time we’ll only keep one and let the other go. A 30- to 40-pound fish makes for a lot of meat and maybe 20 years old so you want to let as many go as you can to make sure you have more of those big old fish for next year.”
Noodling is a tough sport that takes some experience to learn to do well, but with practice and preparation almost anyone can dive beneath the water and pull out a giant catfish, so long as they know what they’re getting themselves into.
“I’ve had 13-year-old girls land 40-pounders easily because they listened and knew what they were doing, and I’ve had 200-pound men get scraped up like they’ve been in a barfight and just quit, because they didn’t listen and didn’t know what they were doing,” said Redden. “Yet anyone who ever landed a fish, I guarantee is coming back. It’s the ultimate adrenaline rush. You dive down there and you can’t see anything and stick your hand in the hole for the fish to bite it. I always tell people it’s like getting hit by a hammer. Don’t flinch and just grab hold of them and then you’re in for a fight. First thing he’s going to do after he bites you is he’s gonna roll and it’s your job to get ahold of the bottom jaw and try to wrap your legs around the tail because if you don’t control the tail, he’ll thrash you to bits. Then get him up to the surface. It takes some grit and you’re gonna lose some hide. A catfish, especially a big one, has a rough mouth like an onion peeler and he’s gonna chew you up a bit. Yet once you grab a few, you won’t ever want to fish for catfish any other way again. It’s that much fun.”
Despite the constant advancements of technology designed to make our lives more comfortable, there is still a small flicker deep down in all of us that enjoys the thrill of being put into uncomfortable situations. A spark that makes us want to do things like jump out of planes, ride bulls, or step into the boxing ring to test our metal and to see what we are really made of. In the world of fishing, there are few such options, as the sport was inherently designed to be a calm, quiet, innocent recreation. But if you’re a catfish noodler, fishing becomes an adrenaline rush where you have to overcome your fear before going into battle.
When you’re down there beneath the water with your hand clamped in the jaws of a struggling catfish and the surface seems so far away, deep down inside yourself you’ll find a kind of determination that you didn’t even know you had. One that will make you tighten your grip, grit your teeth, and hang on. Because no matter what, when you go catfish noodling, you’re going to finish the fight.