What the heck is ‘catfish noodling’?

A brief look at a southern sport unknown to many.

Catfish noodling, also known as grabbling, is the sport of catching catfish with your hands. This aquatic wrestling match takes place mainly in the southern United States and requires knowledge of local catfish holes, a group of noodling spotters or buddies and a certain amount of courage.

Each spring catfish lay their eggs in hideouts in shallow water; in mudbanks, under fallen trees, inside submerged logs or under rocks and brush. Any place the catfish deems safe is suitable for its nest, which is guarded by the male catfish until the young fry leave the nest.

While the male is guarding the eggs, he is a prime target for catfish noodlers. These crazy people know where the catfish holes are in local waterways and try their hands at catfish wrestling when the water is about 20 degrees Celsius. The process is relatively simple, though it involves strength and a little something else.

A noodler and his or her noodling friends (or spotters) will find a catfish hole and surround it, blocking the exit for the catfish. The chosen noodler may poke in the hole with a stick to make sure there is a catfish inside and not a snake or a turtle. This brave soul will then put his hand into the hole, hoping that the catfish will bite it or latch on to it (I think anyone who tries to get bitten on purpose must be crazy!). Biting the noodler makes it easier for the noodler to grab the catfish behind the gills and wrestle it to the surface.  

Noodling takes place in shallow water to water that may be 20 feet deep. It’s easier for the noodler if the catfish is in shallow water, as it is harder for humans to have an underwater wrestling match with a fish, especially without any air. Even in shallow water, the noodlers may be wrestling underwater. Wrestling underwater can be a safety issue and this is another reason why noodlers normally noodle in pairs or in groups. If a fight with a catfish is too intense, the spotters can assist the person doing the noodling.

Once the 20 to 40 pound catfish has been wrestled to the surface, it may be released, strung on a line, or put in a boat to be brought to land for dinner or freezing.  

Catfish noodling has traditionally been a talent passed on from father to son in the southern United States. More recently it has gained attention through the show ‘Hillbilly Handfishin,’” and Mike Rowe’s segment on it in his show, ‘Dirty Jobs.’

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