The Family Guide to Noodling
Cut off some jeans, round up the wife and kids, and head for the water. Because nothing beats the summer heat—and brings family together—like wrestling a giant catfish
This story was first published in the June–July 2017 issue.
MY WIFE, Michelle, chased my little brother out the front door, vowing to whip his butt with a spatula. It was the only weapon she could find to suit her so early in the morning. Matt had woken up and reluctantly told her that he’d ruined a new set of sheets on the guest bed thanks to the open, oozing catfish bite on his arm.
That fish was worth a beating, though. It was an 80-pound flathead that Matt wrestled out by hand from underneath a shallow rock at the mouth of the river. It took two of us to lift the behemoth out of the water for a photo, and only after we released it did Matt say, “Dang, I’m bleeding.” We caught that fish four summers ago, and it’s still the biggest flathead we’ve ever encountered.
Michelle bought new sheets and made Matt sleep on the couch, but he didn’t care. He swears that showing off the scars on his arm helped woo his fiancée, who joined us for her first ever noodling trip last summer. She caught two good flatheads.
We Brantleys have been noodling together for more than a decade. Michelle took our son, Anse, noodling three days before he was born, and every June and July, we host a rotation of nieces, nephews, in-laws, and friends, all of whom are eager to wrestle a flathead. At the end of it, a few are just as eager to go home and never come back. But most can’t wait to do it again.
Even seasoned noodlers are a little afraid of noodling. It’s at least half the fun. If you do it right, you’re going to get cut, beaten, and bruised. Maybe whipped with a spatula. But you’ll probably also catch the biggest catfish of your life and become the family no one messes with at reunions. To truly make your summer complete, you need to get your arm bit by giant catfish.
It was pushing 95 degrees on June 16, 2014. Michelle was nine months pregnant, and adamant about going noodling with the rest of the family. I drew the line at her actually grabbing a fish during her third trimester, but she wouldn’t hear of being left home. Her belly, covered in a camo bathing suit stretched to the limit, looked like a slider turtle as she bobbed around in the lake on her back, relishing a break from the heat and cooling her swollen ankles. We wrangled some big catfish that day. On June 19, our son was born.
But the main thing for you to remember about this story is the heat. Noodling doesn’t take off until the water temperature hits 80-plus degrees. That’s the trigger that puts flatheads on the nest, and it takes a stretch of blistering summer heat to get there. Our season here in Kentucky opens June 1, just about the time the kids are getting out of school, but often the noodling doesn’t get good until a week or two later, when we’re planning my boy’s birthday party.
Channel cats, blues, and flatheads all spawn in underwater holes and cavities (into which noodlers stick their arms to grab the fish). These might be the hollowed underside of a boat ramp, a rockpile, a logjam, or a washed-out bank underneath the roots of a tree. Like most noodlers, we’ve established a milk run of good spots that we check year after year—and we’re always on the lookout for more.
Some noodlers sink their own structures, like 55-gallon drums or coffin-shaped wooden boxes. That works too, but finding and reaching into a natural hole on the bank is decidedly more frightening—and really, why are you doing this if not to get good and scared?
Flatheads spawn in waves, and so the productive fishing ebbs and flows throughout summer once the water is warm enough. Early in the spawning cycle, it’s common to find two fish in one hole, but the females depart shortly after, leaving the males to defend the nest.
Whether that nest is a hollow log or sunken water heater, the idea is to run your arm inside, wiggle your fingers in front of an ill-tempered flathead’s face, and wait for it to swallow your hand. Then the fight begins.
Family Tip: Hours of diving for catfish and climbing in and out of the boat in 90-degree heat works up an appetite. And if you have kids with you, they’re going to get fussy at some point. When Anse acts up, I hand him a chicken leg—and grab a thigh for myself. There is no better boat food than a bucket of KFC.
Play It Safe
Most newcomers are afraid of encountering some foreign creature hiding in a hole, like a snake, turtle, or beaver. Avoiding those problems is easy enough because all of those critters must breathe air. Never reach into a hole that’s not completely underwater, and you’ll probably be just fine.
Noodling is most fun with a flotilla of johnboats full of eager rednecks. Ridicule, peer pressure, and shame are effective motivators for reluctant noodlers, making it fun for the whole family. But this is also a team sport for safety reasons. Getting stuck under a rock and drowning is a far bigger threat than snakes. When we’re fishing, there are at least three of us in the water at a time, and no more than two of us dive at once. The third person’s job is to be the spotter—to know where everyone is at all times, and to dive and check on anyone who’s been underwater too long.
I have noodling kin and buddies weighing from 80 to 250 pounds. They’re kids, men, and women who are students, mechanics, farmers, artists, marketing professionals, salesmen, engineers, and teachers. I’ve seen 12-year-olds who wouldn’t watch a bobber for five minutes take to grabbing catfish like their summer break depended on it. They all love being outside—and on the water—and deep down, they all crave a little violence.
No matter what you weigh or how many weights you lift, if you try to outmuscle a 50-pound flathead 6 feet under the water, he’ll just roll around your hand and maybe break a finger before escaping. Physical strength is fine, but proper technique is far more important when wrestling catfish. Whether your kid is old enough for noodling is ultimately your call, but from my experience, as long as a person—man, woman, or child—is a proficient swimmer and strong enough to pick the fish up, he or she should be good to go. The key is knowing the proper method.
Catfish fight with their heads and tails. Subdue both ends, and you can often noodle a flathead without suffering more than a scratch or two. If the tail gets away from you, the fish will peel the skin off your arm. And if you let go of the head, you’ll have to explain it to your family, who are expecting fried catfish for dinner. That’s way worse than any physical harm you might endure.
When your hand is in a fish’s mouth, the first step is to get hold of the lower jaw and pin the fish to the bottom. That will keep him from rolling. Next, slip your other hand underneath the gill plate, being careful not to damage the gills themselves.
Ease the fish out of the hole and pull his chin tight against your chest—again to keep him from rolling. As the tail comes out of the hole, wrap your knees around the fish’s midsection and cross your ankles. Done right, the fish’s tail will be fanning gently between your calves. You’ve all but got him at that point. Worm your way to the bank or boat (or have a spouse or kid pull you if the water is deep) and break out the stringer.
Family Tip: To help kids who are too little to grab a fish join the action, we often string a fish underwater, ensure life jackets are tight, and then hand them the stringer. A big flathead can nearly put a 6-year-old on plane.
Beware Big Blue
Blue cats can outweigh flatheads, and any noodler who’s encountered a big one will speak of it with quiet reverence. Blues have a vicious nature and a powerful bite. Tangle with a 20-plus-pounder, and you can plan on having some scars to show off later. Fortunately, blues spawn earlier in spring, when the water temperature is in the high 70s, and are mostly finished by the time the flatheads begin nesting. If you want to avoid blues, just wait a couple weeks.
Noodling Mysteries Revealed
- Aren’t there snakes down there? Snakes have to breathe air, so not under the water. But that’s a giant cottonmouth on the bank right over there.
- Ever had a snapping turtle bite you? Not yet, but one time a 4-inch musk turtle bit me on the pinkie.
- Does a catfish bite hurt? No more than laying your bare arm against a belt sander.
- Ever seen anyone really get hurt? One time I took a tattooed-up bodybuilder who was into “extreme” sports. We were fighting a 40-pounder, and it tail-slapped him in the back of the head, causing him to smash his face right on the gunnel of my boat. I didn’t realize the human nose held that much blood.
- What scares a noodler the most? Crankbaits, since flatheads sometimes steal them from bass fishermen and then carry them around awhile.
- What’s the biggest flathead you’ve ever seen noodled? Eighty pounds. A buddy of mine in Mississippi caught and weighed a 98-pounder, but I didn’t see it.
- How do you hold your breath that long? Practice in the bathtub.
What’s in a Name?
A lot in this case. My first noodling trip was in Greenwood, Miss., where they call it hand-grabbin’. When I said I was excited about going “noodling,” they called me a Yankee and threatened to leave me on the bank of the Yazoo River.
I’ve also heard it called grabbling, tickling, hogging, stumping, snatching, and simply hand-fishing. If you’re an out-of-state noodling guest, knowing the local lingo is second in importance only to knowing the local regulations, since being called a Yankee is almost as bad as getting a ticket.
Is This Much Fun Legal?
Like proper barbecue and good whiskey, noodling is a Southern thing, with only a few exceptions. Currently, some form of noodling is allowed in 13 states, from Maryland and Illinois to Alabama and Texas. Seasons and regulations vary, but most states have strict limits on the number of trophy-class cats that can be kept. The regs are often vague, but you’d better know them by heart because you will attract attention.
Even where legal, some question whether this much fun can be ethical. Big catfish have become the darlings of an outspoken group of purist anglers, and some of their concerns over noodling are valid. We do, after all, target trophy catfish during the spawn. But our crew—and just about every other noodling family I know—releases at least 80 percent of the fish we catch, including virtually all of the 30-plus-pounders. You just don’t need to clean many fish of this size to fill your freezer. I’m suspicious of any rod-and-reel angler who claims to release a higher percentage of catfish.
As for targeting fish during the spawn, well, that’s not unique to noodling. Plenty of anglers target spawning bass, panfish, steelhead, and a variety of other species. Fisheries biologists in noodling country will usually tell you that we aren’t hurting the catfish population, nor are we killing a large percentage of the trophies. Responsible participants and science-based regulations are the key, regardless of what you’re catching or shooting.
Really, this is a debate over what’s socially acceptable, like arguing over dry flies and redworms. If you need a center-console boat and thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment to catch a big catfish, it’s doubtful any noodler you ask will give a flying damn, so long as you buy your fishing license and follow the law. They would, however, appreciate the same courtesy in return.
Cat Bellies, Anyone?
Outside of the bones and guts, you can eat near everything on a flathead. The fillets are choice, but the belly meat is even better. Cut it off in a boneless slab, trim away the membranes, and then slice it into long, finger-diameter strips. Whether you pan-fry it or deep-fry it, it’s mild and tasty.
Flatheads also have two big hunks of meat extending from behind their eyeballs down to their cheeks. Removing that is easiest if you first make a pilot cut, and then pull the skin away with pliers. That exposes the meat, which you can then fillet away from the skull. The cheeks are a little chewier than the fillets or belly meat—but delicious nonetheless.
The Noodling Family’s Gear List
Cut-off Tee: For some reason, all noodlers feel compelled to cut the sleeves out of their favorite T-shirts. If you seek acceptance, you’d best do the same.
Do-rag: Keep the top of your head from getting sunburned. I like camo, but anything with skulls, fire, or barbecue advertisements is also O.K.
Rope Stringer: The live well on your fancy bass boat isn’t big enough for the fish you’ll be catching.
Fly Rod: These are perfect for whelping a reluctant first-timer right out of the boat.
Gardening Gloves: Give your mitts a little protection from a thrashing cat’s jaws.
River Shoes: You find holes with your feet, and shoes offer the illusion of protection from alligator snappers. Seriously, shoes will protect your feet from sharp rocks, metal edges, occasional glass, etc.
Poking Sticks: Some fish den up out of arm’s reach. Assuming it’s legal where you’re fishing, use a dull painter’s hook on the end of a broom handle to pull them to you by the gill plate.
Swimwear: We’ve introduced a number of bikini-clad ladies to the joys of noodling, and not once have my buddies complained about them being in the way. Michelle recommends swimsuits with shoulder straps, though, because flatheads can cause wardrobe malfunctions worthy of the Super Bowl.