An oldie but goodie... I've seen people do lots of stupid things. Swallowing live goldfish. Walking barefoot over hot coals. Balancing on a high - wire between skyscrapers. Getting shot out of a cannon. Spending $39.95 to watch a pay-per-view soccer match in Bulgaria. The stupidest thing I ever saw, though, was a guy noodling for catfish.
Let me put you in my shoes for a minute, so you can really get the gist of this.
You drive to the river one day, to do a little catfishing. A pickup is parked there, but you don't see anyone around. When you mosey to the bank with all your tackle, though, you see this guy's head sticking out of the water.
"Whassup?" the head asks.
"Nuttin," you fire back, trying to hide your amazement.
"Whassup wit you?" The guy grunts, then submerges. When he reappears, he says, rather matter-of-factly, "I got a big one down there. But he ain't budging."
You blurt out the next question that crosses your mind. "A big WHAT?"
"A big catfish," the guy replies. "What'd you think I had?"
Tactfully, you answer. "Well, I wasn't really sure. What happened? Did he get you wrapped up in some timber?"
"No, you knucklehead. I'm noodling."
Noodling, Noodling? You search the nether reaches of your brain trying to remember what that is. But it's no use; you have to ask. "Noodling? What the hell is that?"
Now, before I continue, let me tell you about noodling. Noodling, I learned that day, is catching catfish with your bare hands. That's right; I said bare hands. No hooks. No lines. No rods. No reels. Just hands. "Caveman fishing," a buddy of mine calls it. In some areas, folks call it by other names, such as hogging, tickling, grabbling or dogging. The person doing the noodling wades into a body of water where catfish are known to lurk, then reaches underwater and starts feeling for holes in the bank, in logs, under rocks and so forth. Catfish get in holes like this when spawning. Female catfish lay their eggs, then a male cat moves in to guard the eggs. The noodler feels for these holes because he knows when he reaches in, if a cat is on guard, it'll bite him. Then he can grab the fish--maybe--and pull it out.You're starting to understand the "stupid" part of all this, right?
The deal is, the noodler never knows for sure what's in the hole he's probing. It might be a catfish. Then again, it might be a snapping turtle, a beaver or a snake. Mr. Noodler's down there holding his breath, getting all tingly with excitement, while he thrusts his hands in dark underwater hidey-holes to see if anybody's home. He loves this stuff. He thrives on the adrenaline rush it affords. Some guys get their thrills driving race cars, or skydiving, or mountain climbing. Others get their kicks noodling.
If Mr. Noodler finds a hole empty, he moves on and finds another hole to noodle in. If somebody is home, well ... that's where things can get interesting. I learned this first-hand when I went on my first noodling excursion. Now, I know what you're thinking. This numbskull just said the stupidest thing he'd ever seen was a guy noodling for catfish. Now he's telling us he went noodling. Who's the stupid one?
Well, granted, you have to be two McNuggets short of a Happy Meal to try this stuff, but for the sake of journalistic integrity, I felt it was my duty to participate--at least once--so I could write a realistic account. And so, one day I found myself taking a deep breath, diving underwater in a lake and reaching into a dark hole while several noodling enthusiasts cheered me on topside. A catfish was home. And when I realized it was indeed a catfish--not some critter that might bite off my fingers--I was, at least initially, happy. The catfish, however, was not pleased with my intrusion. Rather than wait for me to catch him, he decided to scram--full speed ahead. He rocketed from the hole and slammed into my chest like a tiny torpedo--all five pounds of him. I surfaced like a whale, blowing water six feet high, then leaped onto the bank and told my laughing companions that my hand-in-holes research was done.
The rest of that day I watched as my friends noodled. They caught several 20-pound-plus flatheads using this primitive food-gathering method, and taught me a thing or two I didn't know about this unusual sport. For example, when a noodler reaches into a catfish's lair, the fish may nip, bite or, if large enough, actually engulf the noodler's hand. For this reason, some noodlers wear gloves. Most, however, believe this hinders the sense of touch necessary for determining the type of creature in the hole, its position and the best method for capturing it. In some cases, the hole's entrance may be partially blocked with rocks or small sandbags to prevent the catfish's escape. The noodler then reaches in and tries to grasp the fish by the mouth or gill cover. If he gets a grip, he attempts to resurface with quarry in tow. If the catfish is large, this may require extraordinary effort. It may be impossible. That's part of the challenge.
Scuba gear is used by some modern practitioners, many of whom place specially constructed boxes in rivers or lakes to create catfish dens. An opening in the box permits the diver to gain entry and capture catfish inside. Others employ hooks attached to heavy line, reaching into the hole with a hand or pole, hooking the holed-up cat, then swimming to the surface with the line where the battle continues. Neither method is pure noodling, but in areas where legal, both have their proponents.
Check local regulations before noodling. In some states, the practice is illegal. In others, noodling is permitted during special seasons with a variety of restrictions. Also be aware that this is dangerous sport. Severe injuries, even death, can result from carelessness. Many noodlers are nicknamed "Nubbins," the result of unfortunate encounters with snapping turtles.
Which brings me back to the story of the world's stupidest noodler. I had just asked "Nubbins," as his friends called him, to explain the meaning of the term noodling.
"If you'll reach down and give me a hand," he said, "I'll show you." I extended a hand, grasped the man's wrist and pulled when he said, "Now PULL!" Out of the river he came, with a 64-pound, thrashing, splashing, mad-as-the-dickens flathead in tow.
It was, at the time, the biggest catfish I'd ever seen. The man's fingers protruded from inside the catfish's gill cover. His arm, minus most of its skin, was clamped in the huge fish's vise-like maw. We managed to extract it using a tire tool from my truck.
"Some folks say noodling is stupid," the man told me as he doctored his arm. "And maybe they're right. But for a poor ol' country boy like me, it's the cheapest thrill there is. That there's the biggest catfish anyone around these parts has seen in a long time. And I caught it bare-handed. It don't get no more excitin' than that."
"It might have, if I hadn't come along to pull you out," I said.
"Mebbe so," Nubbins replied, showing me the stumps of two fingers lost to a snapping turtle in a noodling incident gone bad. "That's what makes it inter-restin'." Interesting. Stupid. Dangerous. Exciting. Noodling prompts a flow of adjectives, no matter how you look at it. If you truly seek the ultimate in fishing thrills, you'll find it here and nowhere else.