July 27, 2023
It’s funny the things that go through your mind when your forearm is halfway down a catfish’s gullet. It was then that I recalled a common myth I heard often while growing up in western Kentucky.
As the story went, an unnamed fisherman whose johnboat got too close to a dam was swept under by the force of the current and drowned. His body had to be retrieved by a diver, and no matter if it was Kentucky Lake dam on the Tennessee River, Smithland dam on the Ohio River or Lake Barkley dam on the Cumberland, the diver always spotted a humongous catfish as he searched for the victim. Eventually, as the tale circulated among the morning crew at the local café, the catfish would grow to a size large enough to swallow a man whole.
The catfish that held my forearm in its maw wasn’t nearly that big, but it was sufficiently large enough to concern me. That was the moment I decided I wasn’t cut out to be a noodler. I didn’t understand the mechanics of calming an agitated catfish that didn’t want to be calm, and I had no ambition to learn.
The flathead was slowly twisting and arching under the water in its effort to escape. I began to wonder who had caught whom. One minute, I was gingerly exploring the shallow washout made by the root wad of a fallen willow. The next, I had a 20-pound catfish attached to my arm.
I did know that I wasn’t interested in continuing the meet-and-greet. The flathead was slimy and had a raspy mouth, plus lots of sharp things sticking out, including dagger-like spines. You caught it, I thought to myself. Now release it. Just open your hand and let it go.
The fish decided the issue, sort of. It suddenly began to gyrate frantically, and somehow my hand popped out of its mouth. The flathead then waggled away and disappeared into the murky depths. I remember the sweet, earthy smell of willows, fish and water. I remember that I had envisioned an ending with a photo of a big catfish slung over my shoulder. Most of all, I remember I wasn’t keen on repeating the experience. I reasoned that, technically, I had completed a successful noodling sortie and it was time to move on to other challenges.
When you’re in college and don’t have a lot of money for socializing, noodling or something like it seems like a good time-killer for an otherwise empty afternoon. Three of us—two former high school buddies and me, who attended the same university near Kentucky Lake—decided to try our hands at it one weekend. Another acquaintance who purported to be a noodling expert had filled us in on the procedure.
We were in that greening season of life and on a constant lookout for adventures, including wrestling with catfish. Gas had risen in price to 38 cents a gallon, but we decided to splurge and drive over to Blood River, a huge cove on Kentucky Lake that had all the right ingredients for spawning catfish, especially those big enough to swallow a man whole.
I went first. “Do this or do that,” counseled my friends, who had never noodled a catfish in their lives (and didn’t that afternoon either). I was in water up to my waist and it was cold. It was too early for most flatheads to spawn anyway—except for the one in Blood River that rushed the season a bit. It wasn’t just all that, though. There’s a dry world, and there’s a dark, wet world with things in it waiting to grab you. After that day, I reckoned I belonged in the former and would leave the mysteries of the deep to its denizens.
THE OKIE SENSEI
It’s too bad I didn’t know master noodler Nathan Williams back then. He and his kin are as comfortable in wet environments as dry ones. I could have learned a lot from him, especially confidence. Even as a kid, Williams never let a catfish intimidate him, and it was those early noodling successes that earned him acclaim as first among equals in Oklahoma—a state known for its talented noodlers.
If you’re good at something to begin with, you tend to keep at it until you get a lot better. Williams, of Shawnee, Okla., passed that stage a few years ago when he started winning just about every noodling tournament around. Now it’s routine, as he’s won almost 40, including three in 2022. His heaviest fish last year was a 72-pounder. He’s caught bigger.
In 2017, he noodled an 85-pound 2-ounce flathead from Texas’ Lake Tawakoni. In the process, Williams and Kelly Millsap, the other half of Team Adrenaline (adrenalinerushnoodling.com) guide service, shared an adrenaline rush of their own by breaking the national noodling record. Beyond the glory, there’s money in them thar gills. Most recently, Williams, 35, collected $1,000 for winning the “natural division” of the 2022 Okie Noodling Tournament out of Pauls Valley.
WAYS AND MEANS
“Part knack, part acquired skill,” says Williams of noodling. He noodled his first catfish on a dare when barely in his teens and liked the experience so much that he became an expert at it. The procedure is simple to explain, though hard to execute.
Starting in May or early June, wade the shallows of a cove until you feel a hole or indentation big enough to hold a ginormous and aggressive male catfish. Then, slowly explore the lair with your feet, a decent-sized “poking stick” or your hand. If something feels softer than bottom, chances are it’s a flathead, the most abundant target. The rest is improvised, but words such as “gingerly,” “slowly” and “carefully” typically are used to describe the grappling part of the exercise.
The noodler or a companion tries to figure out if there’s any way for the catfish to get out of the trap except by charging straight ahead. Preferably, any possible exits will be covered, or else the catfish will keep plowing this way and that until it finds an opening. All heck is likely to break loose when the catfish first realizes it’s not another flathead or blue come calling. Once the shock of being grabbed and tussled out of the water by a human passes, however, a noodled catfish becomes reasonably docile.
WADE AND SEE
“Probably most people didn’t know that catfish hole up when they spawn,” says Williams. “They’ll make their nests in the shallows where they won’t be in heavy current or near predators. It might be in washed-out tree roots, or under flooded roads and in logs, pipes, culverts, rock crevices, boat docks, old tires or any other junk that’s been thrown in the water. One of the best places to look is at boat ramps where the sand at the end of the ramp has been washed out underneath the slab.”
Wherever they set up their temporary residences, flatheads and blues don’t want to be bothered. In a sport where getting a bite can mean different things, a veteran noodler is easily identifiable by the scars and scrapes up and down his or her arms.
“They’ll bite your whole hand before you even know what’s happening,” says Williams. “Blues can really chomp down. That’s why I wear a glove. What you want to do is ease up there and grab the catfish by the bottom jaw, which is like the handle of a suitcase. Then, you try to get it in a head lock and get the tail under control. When it’s a bigger catfish, it can be a real chore.
“You have to be really good at holding your breath—just in case the battle goes underwater,” he adds. “About 80 percent of the time you can just bring that catfish up and a buddy will help you put a stringer on it pretty quick. Anytime it’s fresh out of the hole, though, for the first couple of minutes it might go crazy. Sometimes it just gets away. I don’t know anybody who hasn’t lost at least one really big one.”
Sometimes parting company with a catfish is more a blessing than a misfortune. Williams remembers one occasion when he encountered a catfish that he judged to be in the 80-pound range. He said the catfish bit down on his hand as soon as it felt him.
“I got a stringer through its gill as quick as I could, but then it decided it was time to go. When it did, it broke the stringer rope and liked to have took me with it,” says Williams, who looks husky enough to acquit himself well with a fish that’s mostly muscle. “I don’t know how big it was, but probably it was a good thing that the stringer rope broke.”
The moral of the story: Noodling can be dangerous. When River Williams, one of Nathan’s three noodling sons (along with big brother Jayce and younger brother Phierce) was 4 years old, he tried to grapple a flathead that his dad guesstimated to be 20 pounds. Turns out there was another catfish in the hole, and it weighed about 55 pounds. That’s the one River accidentally throttled. After he put one end of a stringer through the flathead’s gill, it took off with the youngster in an Oklahoma version of a Nantucket Sleighride. Fortunately, the catfish and River wound up beached and floundering on a nearby shallow sandbar.
Sixteen states currently allow noodling, most of them in the South. Noodling seasons last as long as state laws allow, which is generally through summer. Then it’s back to hook-and-line for Mr. Whiskers.
It’s not so much that noodling is an easy way to catch fish. At times it is, but noodling is mainly a curious relic from the days before TVs and video games, when most country folks had to manufacture their own entertainment, even if it entailed a tad bit of danger. To noodlers such as Williams, it’s crazy fun, though perhaps with a bit too much emphasis on “crazy.”
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
- Noodling—at least the first time you try it—is best done with an experienced guide.
Is noodling a big catfish on your bucket list? If so, the first step is to hire a guide (a.k.a. “instructor”) to show you how it’s done. Otherwise, there might be somebody in your family or circle of friends who is an expert noodler.
While the mechanics of the procedure seem relatively cut-and-dry, it’s not that easy to move a big catfish that doesn’t want to go where you want it to go. Most of the great noodlers, such as Oklahoma’s Nathan Williams, were fortunate enough to have hooked up early on with someone who taught them the finer points.
In the South, noodling is legal in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas, as well as a few of the northern states. That means you probably can find a guide service or two in your state or close by in an adjoining state.
Rates average about $275 per person per day for small groups, and you’ll take home some good insights on the ways and means of noodling. When you’re ready to contact a guide, be sure to ask about state regulations that govern limits. Some guide services are strictly catch-and-release, so inquire about that, too.