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Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. Many other names, such as catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hogging, cat-daddling, dogging, gurgling, tickling and stumping, are used in different regions for the same activity.
The term "noodling", although today used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. Where the name "noodling" originated is not actually known, but the name is not at all illustrative of the dangerous craft. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod & reel, speargun, etc., but this usage is much less common.
Due to concerns over either the safety of noodlers or sustainability of fish populations, or both, the technique is illegal in some states where it was once traditionally practiced. As of 2002[update], it was legal in some form in eleven states, sometimes with restrictions on the species or sizes of fish, and on the specific methods that may be employed: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. It has since been legalized in Texas.
Although the concept of catching fish with only the use of the arm in the water is simple enough, the process of noodling is more complicated. The choice of catfish as the prey is not arbitrary, but comes from the circumstances of their habitat. Flathead catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers and lakes and thus are easier to capture due to the static nature of their dwelling. To begin, a noodler goes underwater to depths ranging from only a few feet to up to twenty feet and places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. If all goes as planned, the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the fisherman's hand, usually as a defensive maneuver, in order to try to escape the hole. If the fish is particularly large, the noodler can hook the hand around its gills.
Most noodlers have spotters who help them bring the catfish in, either to shore or to their boat; noodling in pairs is considered important for safety, and also makes it a more social activity, with noodling partners often forming long-term partnerships.
A typical weight for a flathead catfish caught by noodling is 40 lb (18 kg).
On Late Night with David Letterman in 1989, Jerry Rider climbed into a tank with a catfish and caught it using his bare hands. For a time Rider became the face of noodling, and appeared in countless news stories and numerous newspaper articles around this time as well. Though he is no longer considered the "face of noodling," Rider is still a prominent and active noodler, appearing in both a Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs pilot episode and in the History Channel's current television series "Mudcats." Rider even traveled to India to demonstrate noodling while visiting the country for the weekend. Most of these stories were light-hearted variety pieces with little information — very few of them looked at the practice as a serious sport, as noodlers may have wanted.
The closest thing to a serious examination of noodling accessible to popular culture was a documentary released in 2001 called Okie Noodling, directed by local documentarian Bradley Beesley. The documentary covers the history and current practice of noodling as it is practiced in Oklahoma. During the course of the documentary the realization that there were no official noodling contests spawned the First Annual Okie Noodling Tournament held in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. The tournament brought in young people from across Oklahoma to a sport mostly passed down from father to son. The release of the documentary and its subsequent airing on PBS affiliates has, if not made the sport more popular, raised its profile to more than just a local phenomenon.
Although not mentioning women in noodling explicitly, through interviews Okie Noodling helps to explain women's relationship to the sport. Although some women relate stories of times they have noodled, the majority of practicing noodlers were and are men. Many of the male noodlers explained how they began noodling when their father took them out, and how they planned to bring their sons into the world of noodling. Also, as others who have written on noodling have expressed, if noodling is to be considered a sport, then (at least to outsiders) it is most definitely an extreme sport, which tend to draw a disproportionate number of male followers.
Noodling was featured in a pilot episode of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, which premiered on November 14, 2003. In this episode, host Mike Rowe joins two men from Oklahoma as they noodle for flatheads. The segment ends after Rowe noodles a fish and the men clean and enjoy the catch.
Noodling was later featured in the US sitcom Cougar Town, when Bobby and Travis went on a father son fishing trip, noodling for catfish with their bare hands.
Noodling is also featured in the television series "Mudcats", which premiered on The History Channel on Thursday, February 9, 2012. This series follows a group of Oklahoma noodlers.
In 2010, Animal Planet ran the series premiere of Hillbilly Handfishin', a show dedicated to the sport. The sport of Hillbilly Handfishin' is also celebrated in the song, "Hillbilly Hand," released in August 2011.
In April 2012, the season premier of Animal Planet's River Monsters featured host Jeremy Wade noodling in Oklahoma and, along with his local guides, winning first place in a flathead catfish weigh-in.
Noodling can result in superficial cuts and minor wounds to the noodler. This can be reduced by wearing gloves and other protective clothing. Losing fingers is also a risk, whether from the bite or infection. Most holes are deep enough that diving is needed, so there can be a danger of drowning. A person with confident swimming abilities may be caught off guard by the sudden added strain of carrying a large fish to the surface. Spotters can alleviate this danger, but it is still present. A wounded noodler ten to twenty feet underwater might not be able to return safely to the surface and may drown. Clothes may get tangled or snagged on roots or rocks, so some noodlers wear only denim shorts.
The greatest physical threat posed to noodlers, however, comes from other forms of aquatic life found in catfish holes. Far more dangerous than catfish are alligators, snakes, beavers, muskrats and snapping turtles, who will take over abandoned catfish holes as homes of their own.