by Ned Hickson
After living in the Deep South for 10 years, I occasionally feel a strong urge to return. When that happens, I just remind myself that as beautiful and historic and hospitable as the South is, it contains people who use themselves as bait for catfish that are roughly the size of an Airstream travel trailer. Generally speaking, these people are not intoxicated or medicated. Nor is there any evidence to support that they are the victims of mind-controlling aliens who have simply grown bored waiting for the invasion.
No. These folks WANT to hunt catfish by sticking their bare hands into underwater burrows, knowing full well it could be the hiding place of a cottonmouth, snapping turtle, or Dick Cheney.
Admittedly, the closest I've come to hand-grabbing a catfish occurred at a public golf course near Atlanta, when I waded into a water hazard to retrieve my ball and accidentally stepped on a Gar. For those west of the Mason-Dixon, a Gar is sort of like a barracuda, but with more attitude. To this day, none of us can agree on how big this Gar was. My guess is about 12 feet long. And I'm pretty sure it had the hindquarters of a bull elk clenched between its jaws. Others in our group disagree, and say what I actually stepped on was a swollen bratwurst.
Which is totally ridiculous.
I think I'd know the difference between stepping on a dangerous man-eating fish, or a relatively harmless meat by-product. Although, to be fair, I can't say for sure because my eyes were closed and I was screaming.
In that moment it became clear to everyone in our group, -- and anyone living within a two-mile radius -- I wasn't going to be bare-handing a giant catfish (or bratwurst) anytime soon.
To fully appreciate this aggressive style of catting known as "noodling," you must keep a couple of things in mind. First, some catfish can weigh as much as 100 pounds. Fish biologists have documented enormous mouth radiuses, which is done by carefully extending the mouth to its largest capacity, measuring it on all sides, then comparing it to a scale reference provided by Mick Jagger.
The other thing you have to remember is that the South's most successful "noodlers" -- those who have achieved celebrity by the sheer volume of catfish they've landed with their bare hands -- generally have names like "Uncle Stubby," "Button-Nosed Jim" and "Three-Finger Jack." These men not only offer themselves for the sake of the sport, but vow to keep doing so, even if it becomes necessary for someone to physically insert them into a catfish lair once they've lost all their appendages. It's this kind of dedication that inspires people like myself to at least consider taking a risk and, despite the danger, order fried catfish that might contain a missing digit from "Three-Finger Jack."
To better understand this sport, I tried contacting several "noodlers" by phone to discuss what it takes to be successful. One thing I learned right away was to make sure the person you are calling is indeed a "noodler" before addressing them as such. This is especially true if you accidentally transpose the number and call someone who is, at that very moment, running late for an anger management class.
As it stands, I have yet to talk with an actual "noodler," but will continue to follow this story. In fact, my editor has agreed to fly me back to the Deep South for first-hand research, and I definitely plan to go.
Just as soon as she includes a return ticket.