“It’s like the first time you are about to have sex; that feeling of excitement, anticipation, worry, and uncertainty, but ultimately you are super giddy.” That’s how filmmaker Bradley Beesley describes the sensation he gets when noodling—a form of hand fishing popular in Oklahoma.
Noodling is a way of catching fish without the aide of poles, nets, or sonars. Noodlers attempt to pull fish out of hardly visible places with their hands by using only their body as bait. They wade into water and let fish nibble on their hands, arms, or feet, and then the noodlers grab the fish by the mouth and wrestle them ashore or into a boat.
Growing up in Oklahoma City, Beesley had heard about the pastime at family reunions. Intrigued, he decided to uncover more about the mysterious sport. He put up flyers at small town bait shops and bars, looking for bona fide noodlers to star in his 2001 documentary, Okie Noodling.
“It’s a secretive sport,” says the Austin-based filmmaker. “Guys didn’t want me to go out with a camera because they thought my motive was to exploit their fishing holes.”
David Baggett was one such skeptic. A noodling veteran of over 30 years, Bagget is among the noodling cognoscenti, having appeared on ESPN and the Food Network. And since learning the craft at age 22, he has seen it evolve across borders.
“It’s not just Oklahoma anymore,” says Baggett. “It has gone to Ohio, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and I’m pretty sure other places where it isn’t even legal.”
The noodler’s typical prey is the flathead catfish, which hides in holes and crevasses along the banks of waterways to protect its eggs from snakes, beavers, and grabby hands. And these toothless titans—baseball-bat length and little-leaguer weight—can put up a fight. To meet them in battle, Baggett and his buddies have deployed unconventional methods.
“I prefer to use my leg rather than my arms so I can lift more,” explains Baggett. “Biggest fish I ever caught was 62 pounds. I found a big a hole and stuck my leg in. It latched on and I lifted it right out.”
For Okie Noodling, Beesley set up an ad hoc tournament to attract Baggett and others. The one-off gathering is now a staple of Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma. In its 13th year, The June event has evolved into a full-fledged fair—complete with a noodling demo tank, queen coronation, bouncy castles, and a catfish-eating contest.
The term ‘tournament’ is a misleading—it’s more like the Oscars than the World Series. Fishermen haul prized catches through frenzied crowds, red carpet style, posing for pictures en route to the official weigh station.
Three divisions—male, female, and 18-and-under—compete for title of biggest catfish, while the ambitious enter the scuba division, where assisted breathing is required to capture catfish at great depths.
“Last year we had 10,000 people, film crews from Australia, and a Japanese team enter the tournament,” says Della Wilson, President of Paul’s Valley Chamber of Commerce. “And this year we broke two records. Not only did we have the largest number of entries, but the biggest fish in the competition’s history!”
That accolade went to a 70.46 lbs. catch from Claremore’s Kaleb Summers. And as the scope of noodling grows, so does Beesley’s love for the sport.
“The act of catching a catfish with your bare hands is more romantic than anything I’ve done or ever will do in my life,” says Beesley with a dignified tone. “If I have vacation time I allot it to going back to Oklahoma.”
If you can’t make it to Paul’s Valley for the Okie Noodling tournament check out one of Beesley’s three films on the subject: Okie Noodling, Okie Noodling II (watch the trailer below), and Mudcats (History Channel).