Noodling: The Act of Catching Catfish with One’s Bare Hands

The month of May just couldn’t get here soon enough. I’ve grown tired of watching all of my friends kill turkeys. Just downright jealous. As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure we can be friends anymore. I said this year was going to be the year. I was going to end the turkey drought. How foolish of me. Time is never on my side during the spring, and this year we decided to sell our house, adding an even greater obstacle to turkey season. Needless to say, the drought continues.

I spent exactly TWO mornings in the woods listening for birds. That doesn’t exactly provide much of an opportunity for a novice hunter, like myself, to kill a wily ol’ Tom. On one of my two trips, I at least got to hear a few birds gobbling. Of course, there was never a shot opportunity, and I thought there’d be other chances. Then life took over and turkey season ended before it ever started. As Cubs fans have grown accustomed to saying, “Just wait until next year!”

On the bright side, we are now entering one of my favorite times of the year. These next couple of months is where I get to separate myself from all of you other “outdoorsmen.” May 1st marked the beginning of the Mississippi handgrabbing, or noodling, season. I’ve got a bunch of friends that can go out and bag a turkey, but there aren’t too many knocking down the door to go stick their hands in an underwater hole in the river. This is my time, dadgumit.

I’ve been handgrabbing catfish for over 25 years. From the first time that I went with my uncle when I was a kid, I’ve been hooked (no pun intended). There’s a certain adrenaline rush that is hard to recreate when you shove your hand in a hollow log, or hole in the bank, on the river. Most of the time you’ve got a decent idea of whether, or not, there’s a fish in the hole. However, you never know just when they are going to bite your hand, so there’s the rush. You also can’t be 100% sure that there’s a catfish in the hole. I’ve never encountered any other living creatures in the holes I fish, but I’ve heard rumors of guys losing fingers to turtles.

People will sometimes ask, “Does it hurt?” The answer to that question is, it depends. While catfish aren’t exactly barracudas, they do have a tooth pad that is like coarse sandpaper, and a powerful bite. When you grab the fish, you’ll want to run your arm through his mouth, and out of his gills. This usually results in losing your top layer of skin on your forearm. Think of it as a really bad rug-burn on your arm. Due to the adrenaline rush, you don’t really feel it until afterward, though. In the end, it’s all worth it…for the rush and the fine eating that comes afterward.

Over the years, we have caught some really nice fish with many exceeding the forty pound range. When you start talking about catfish that are that big, most people throw their noses up at them thinking that they do not taste good. I’m telling you now, you will not eat catfish at any restaurant in Mississippi that will taste better than these fish. A 30-40 pound flathead catfish is some of the best eating on the planet. The key is to bleed them out (hang them up and cut the tail off), then cut out any red meat. Batter them, fry them, and you’ll never want to go back to Jerry’s again.

If you want to get into handgrabbing, you’ll need to remember there are some rules in place. You cannot use hooks of any type. You can use a rope to secure your fish before bringing it out of the water, but the rope cannot have an attachment. You can build wooden boxes for fish to house in, but you cannot use any type of plastic or metal. Your box has to be built with natural materials. If you decide to build boxes, you cannot raise them out of the water to capture a fish. You’ve got to grab them! As for where you can put your boxes, it’s best to contact your local authorities beforehand. Most public waters in the state are open to grabbing, but some are not.

Finally, before you embark on your first grabbing trip, convince a friend to go with you. There’s a lot of things that could potentially go wrong when you mix people in the water trying to grab a fish. Your best bet is to go with someone that’s done it before and learn the ropes. Once you figure it out, you’ll not only have great fish to eat, but you’ll have great stories to tell!

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