Noodling Catfish in Oklahoma
I have done about every type of catfishing you can think of, but noodling is one my wife will not allow. That being said, I find noodling fascinating. I had a friend who recently passed away that was an avid noodler. Let me reassure you that his passing had nothing to do with a fishing accident. Over the last several years he told me stories of his trips in Oklahoma, and explained the strategies and dangers of noodling.
All of that said, I do have to give some warnings up front. First, noodling catfish is only legal in 15 states. Please check with your local conservation department before you plan a noodling trip. Second, you can drown while noodling.
I will cover ways to stay safer while hand-fishing, but be warned that you are risking your life. In addition, more superficial injuries are very common. Catfish have mouths like sandpaper and can rip your skin when they bite. Other animals like beavers and snapping turtles can take off fingers, and venomous snakes love the same holes as catfish.
1. How noodling works
If you have read all this and are still curious, let me explain how it works. Noodling is almost always done with catfish during the spawn in the spring and fall. The spawn is triggered by water temperatures around 70F. This is when the large male catfish will aggressively guard the eggs that have been laid in underwater holes. These holes can be found near sunken logs, large rocks, or river banks.
2. Finding the right hole
Noodling is most often done in shallow water for safety reasons. Your first job is to find a hole, and having several friends with you will speed up the process. Let me emphasize that having at least one person with you is an absolute must. You need somebody ready to pull you out if a large catfish pulls you under.
Once you have found a hole, you must block off all exits. Some people do this with rocks or sandbags, but a wall of people is the best bet.
Next you must determine what type of animal (if any) is in the hole. Some people do this with a stick while others make that determination with their hand. If you feel something like a rock, it is probably a snapping turtle. If it is long and skinny, it is likely a snake (probably venomous). If it has fur it is probably a beaver. All of these scenarios mean to back away carefully.
3. How it’s done correctly
If your animal is not one of these hazards, it is time to go fishing. Plant your feet shoulder width apart and shove your hand into the hole. You want to get an aggressive response from the fish defending its eggs. If it does not bite your hand, you may have to tickle its mouth or even pry it open. Eventually it will clamp onto your hand or wrist. Now you have to clench your hand and pull out the fish.
Keep in mind that these fish can easily be 50 lbs. A fish like this will put up a heck of a fight and may keep you underwater. This is why you need a spotter. You want to be sure to avoid gloves or long sleeves as these could get caught on an underwater branch. They also could prevent you from releasing the fish if you need to head for the surface.
Avoid deep water and water with a strong current. Also be warned about the force of a catfish when swimming. A large catfish trying to escape can easily knock the wind out of you, and can crack a few ribs. This fish also has barbs along the pectoral fins that can cut you open, so be careful when handling the fish. Your best bet is to throw the fish in a boat or get it on a stringer as quickly as possible.
4. The draw of noodling
For many people, the draw of noodling is the excitement. Rarely can you find a type of fishing that qualifies as an extreme sport. After recent television shows highlighting this type of fishing, the interest has greatly increased.
However, for my friend Dan it was strictly about economics. He had several kids to feed and he could spend only a short amount of time fishing because of his job. Being an expert, he could spend minutes in the river and come out with food for over a week.
While I regret that I never got the chance to try noodling with my friend, I respect his expertise and bravery. When I think about the years I knew him, his stories of the rivers in Oklahoma always bring a smile to my face.
If you decide to try out this adventurous type of fishing, please be safe. Take somebody with you, and may you find the excitement and success for which you are looking.