Noodling conjures up images of standing over a vat of boiling water, cooking some kind of Italian pasta to perfection. This may be one definition of the term, but in reference to one of the oddest fishing styles known, it refers to the art of fishing for catfish using only bare hands and a big stick for prodding purposes. That is correct; using only your bare hands to feel your way along the mud-caked bottom of a river in search of a catfish is called noodling. Better still, these catfish can weigh an awful lot.
Noodling, also referred to as grabbling, is legal only in certain states and was practiced by Native Americans long before the settlement of Europeans. To experience noodling you must plan a trip south to Arkansas, North Carolina, or Mississippi. During the Depression, it was rumored grabbling became popular as a rapid and inexpensive manner of providing food for the family. Today, grabbling as a means of fishing for flathead, channel and blue catfish is mainly for entertainment, as most grabblers practice catch-and-release.
From late May to July, when the days lengthen and water temperatures become warmer, catfish seek out shallow water to lay their eggs. Sheltered secluded locations are preferred such as boat ramps, holes in rocks, and sandbanks. Once the female catfish lays her eggs, she departs the nest, leaving the male catfish to guard the eggs and keep them aerated. The male will not leave the nest until the baby catfish are ready to leave as well. Catfish are very aggressive during spawning season. For this reason, care must be taken to avoid becoming victim to that aggression when noodling.
Locate bedding catfish by running your bare hands along the river bottom in search of an opening. For a bottom-feeding fish, the catfish is rather clean and delicate. Openings are easy to find because the catfish will continue to clear its home and area. Some experienced grabblers plan their trips during the winter when water levels are low, where it is possible to see potential hideaways that will soon be submerged. They then return to these locations during spawning season.
An angry growling sound, described by some as a “thump”, lets you know you have located your prey. Submerging yourself is required for a good portion of the grabbling expedition; clearly, the longer you are able to hold your breath, the easier it is to grabble. Once a spawning location has been identified, use a big stick to guide the catfish out of the nest to within arm’s reach.
Now knowing where your prey is, place your hand with outstretched fingers into the hole. The catfish will quickly become angered at your intrusion and will strike out, either hitting your hand or grabbing your hand while biting it with its mouth. He may clamp on to your hand and attempt to pull you into the hole, hence the need for additional assistance when attempting grabbling. Once he bites, grab him with both hands on his lower jaw, wrap your legs around him if necessary and pull him completely out of the water. Twisting and rolling are sure to ensue, but perseverance will ensure your victory.
Clearly, “noodling” is not an experience everyone will enjoy, least of all those who are faint at heart, and injury is always a possibility. For some, the pasta-cooking scenario may be much more preferable. But for a “hands-on” fishing experience that anyone from the young to the elderly can delight in, there is nothing quite comparable.