Second Thought: Wednesday, October 8, 2003
Noodling for Humans

When a guy catches a 40-pound fish using himself for bait, whose brain is bigger?


Now, I shouldn’t be the one to talk about this kind of thing. After all, I’ve fished all my life. Overcame my girlish squeamishness enough to learn to push the earthworm down on the hook just so, and go catch a fish. At that time, I did not respect or reject the earthworm.

Nor am I a gun opponent, even though I liked Bowling for Columbine and thought it was an even-handed representation of America’s gun culture. I even like to brag to people about how it was Nolan Ryan who first showed me how to shoot a rifle, on a quail hunt.

When you get down to it, I am just not deeply opposed to killin’ stuff or to creatures battlin’ creatures. It seems to be the way it was intended. I’m a little worried about our gun culture, but not enough to give up quail hunting.

But what about our fist culture?

Yes, I said “fist.’’ I am sure some of you have heard of this, because ESPN (the magazine) has done something on it, and PBS has aired a really fine (no, I am not being sarcastic) documentary on it.

My editor called one day and asked if I had heard of “noodling.’’ Well, I tried to act like I knew what it was. I tried to think what it might be. “Drunk in my twenties’’ or “Republican’’ was all I could come up with.

Turns out, she had a video that she got from her husband who got it from a guy at work, who is infatuated with this sport wherein people go wading into mudholes on the side of lakes and rivers and stick their hands into holes and hope that something reptilian or amphibian or Osteichthyes or phylum cordata or cyprinifornes or suborder nemapognathi in nature — catfish, that is — will grab their hand. (Ain’t the internet great for illiterates?).

This sport is illegal in most states, and the name comes either from the fact that a catfish is kinda squishy-noodly, or the term “noodle,’’ meaning a dumbass, like the kind that would stick his or her arm down a dark mudhole, underwater with or without breathing gear, and stick a fist down the throat of a catfish the size of two overweight toddlers.

And I’m sorry, but none of these people who were noodling on the video looked normal, unless you live in a silver trailer and your scant neighbors are running to town now and then to stock up on Spam and white bread for when Jesus returns or Castro takes over, whichever comes first. Although, in all fairness, I have to report that Kristi Addis, Miss Teen USA 1987, was a noodler — from Mississippi (hello).

The point is to catch a catfish with your fist as bait. Now, just take a minute and visualize and breathe real deep through your nose and exhale through your mouth. It will be OK, because you do not live in Oklahoma (where noodling is legal). Y’all, they have tournaments for this stuff. It’s an art apparently passed along from inbred generation to inbred generation.

The PBS video shows half-dressed men submerging themselves in bad bilge, at the sides of really snaky-looking lakes and streams and rivers, looking to stick their fist as bait into a hole, searching for a fish that’s probably big enough to kill them. Sometimes, darn it, there’s a poisonous snake in there. Maybe one of them pesky turtles that won’t let go.

I have always been one of those reporters who liked to do the firsthand type thing — riding bulls and cutting horses, the “Bucking for Idiots’’ kind of thing. When I was that wrestling columnist Betty Ann Stout, I rode elephants with no saddle and got cinched up and flown over the convention center on wires and wearing a mask.

But even if my daddy hadn’t gotten bitten by a rattler when he was peein’ in a cotton field as a boy, leaving me scared bowel-movement-less of snakes, I wouldn’t noodle for any amount of money.

The documentary and now the internet are filled with stories of people who got caught under rocks that shifted below water level, or a catfish that sucked so hard on the “bait’’ and was so big that the noodler just plum up and drowned. Noodlers talk about their cottonmouth bites. About getting bit by snapping turtles.

Imagine that. Imagine all that.

This “sport” allegedly started out as something almost noble. An Indian family, a pioneer family, is starving. They don’t even have anything for bait, and if they had, they wouldn’t have a string to hook to a stick. So, they go diving for dinner.

These guys (and some women) strip down to their underwear (or sometimes less — clothes can get caught in the brambles and stuff) and find catfish big and hungry enough to close their mouths around the noodlers’ fists. Then they show the catfish off, sometimes while a cottonmouth slithers around their butt. These cats, with heads the size of jack-o-lanterns, look prehistoric, like maybe they’ve been in there since Strom Thurmond needed a baby seat.

Watching the video, you get to feeling sorry for the ugly thing (the fish, not the guys with the mullet haircuts). “Now that thing is a child of God,” I said, growing more sympathetic after the first glass of cabernet settled in.

I know this sounds dumb, but I think everything has a spirit or an energy that goes somewhere. I think heaven is all around us. I’m not a Shirley MacLaine or anything; I’m an Episcopalian who isn’t bothered by gay bishops — believe it or not, they have a spirit just like the catfish. I just think that, as humans, we are arrogant, thinking we’re the only critters with spirits.

Which brings me back to my real worries about the noodling culture. These guys aren’t starving pioneers trying to feed their families. They don’t even bother knockin’ these creatures on the heads when they bring them out. I mean, eating crap at the bottom of a nasty stream in Oklahoma isn’t much of a life, but you don’t see the cats giving away prizes for the biggest noodler caught.

Actually, catfish vs. mullets ain’t a bad idea. Wouldn’t be a bad way of thinning the herd. And I don’t mean the catfish.

Jennifer Briggs is a local freelance writer.

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