It would not surprise me to find out that most fishermen have seen illustrations concerning how to fish. Any library in the country probably has more than a few books on the subject, and I know many fishermen who own a personal library on the topic. I know I must own more than twenty books on how to fish various waters with an endless array of equipment. And in several of these books are illustrations of someone reaching under a cut bank to grab a fish. That technique is known as noodling.
In many states noodling is either illegal or is considered to be so ridiculous as to not even need a law. Who in their right mind would reach under a bank to grab at an unknown entity? Did it ever occur to anyone that it might not be a fish under that bank? Most states understand that it is impossible to stop people from noodling and rarely enforce any laws as may exist on the subject. There is a prevailing opinion that a noodler takes extreme risks, and if something goes wrong, the self-inflicted punishment is both justified and sufficient. But noodlers are a breed of their own.
A neighboring state just to the north of Texas (I won’t say which one, but that’s OK) has some prime noodling waters. At least according to my cousin. My cousin was a noodler. I don’t know why my cousin was a noodler, but he was a noodler. He wasn’t raised that way. I guess he just fell in with the wrong crowd. Vern lived for just two things (three if one includes beer) and those were bull riding and noodling. By far the bull riding was higher on the intelligence scale.
I didn’t see Vern very often due to the fact he was usually in some hospital somewhere recovering from bull riding or noodling, but we came across each other from time to time at my grandparent’s lake property. On one occasion I was telling him about my hunt for a giant catfish at Possum Kingdom Lake west of Fort Worth. He responded with stories of catching catfish by hand. I knew he had been doing this for a few years, but this was something we in the family just didn’t talk about. However, it was now in the open. Vern came out from under the cut bank and was actually admitting he was a noodler.
My sense of adventure prevented me from just walking away from this nonsense, and by the evening I was thinking I might give it a try. “Might” is the key word here. I didn’t say I “Would” give it a try. At the very least I wanted to see for myself how it was done. Vern said he would pick me up in a couple of weeks and we would drive to his favorite noodling hole about a hundred miles to the north. I felt a small panic attack start in my toes and work itself upward to my head. The only thing I thought could be worse than noodling was riding somewhere with Vern.
I arranged to have a business meeting in Oklahoma City so I could meet up with Vern at the chosen lake and not have to ride anywhere with him. This was a wise idea. Trust me. The lake was a number of miles away from my business meeting, but it was a lifetime of driving closer than had I ridden there from Texas with Vern at the wheel. We met up at the appointed place. I showed up about two hours late thinking Vern would just be arriving about that time, but I was still almost three hours early, so I used the time to watch some noodlers in action. Oh, boy.
The first man was a loner. He parked his truck a short distance from my car and started taking off his clothes. He put on some shorts (thank God) and a pair of old tennis shoes, grabbed a coil of rope, and walked down the slope to the water’s edge. He stepped into the water and began walking along the edge of the bank to an area of overhang.
I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but it appeared he was feeling the bank under the water with his feet. Then he stopped, dived under the water for a long time, and finally came up with a big catfish. His hand was in the big fish’s mouth with his fingers sticking out of the gills. And the fish was thrashing hard. More than once the man disappeared back under the water from fighting the fish, but he kept his hand in that fish’s mouth anyway. After several minutes he managed to get the rope looped through the gills and mouth and started towing the monster back to where he had entered the water.
I watched him haul the fish up onto dry ground and tie the rope to a tree so it couldn’t thrash its way back to the water. The man walked back to his truck where he picked up his club and knife to do what he had to do to keep the fish. After he put the cleaned fish into his ice chest, he calmly dressed, then walked over to me with a short piece of rope.
“Can you wrap this thing around my left arm just above the elbow? And pull it real tight.” I looked at his left arm and saw the snakebites. Four of them. “Water moccasins got me again. Gotta’ go see the doc.”
My eyes followed him as he drove away, but I soon turned my attention to a group of four or five men working their way along a bank about two hundred yards away. I could see the rope one man was hauling behind him and it looked as though they had already been successful. I watched as one of the men dived under the water and came up with another catfish, but he had some help wrestling it, and soon it was on the rope with the others.
When they reached the sloped area where they could exit the water, they dragged their fish up onto the ground and tied them to the same tree the previous man had used. Then one of them trotted up to the road and disappeared while the others produced a knife and began cleaning the fish. Later the man who had disappeared returned with a truck and several large ice chests.
I took a few minutes to talk with the men about their adventures in noodling. One man was missing several fingers from a snapping turtle mistake a few years earlier. And another man had a heavily scarred arm from a beaver. Apparently snapping turtles and beavers are as much a problem to noodlers as are snakes. Every one of the men had been bitten more than once by various poisonous snakes. I was beginning to think I needed to miss my appointment with Vern. After all, he was running very late, and I could say I had to get back to a meeting.
The men left with their catch, and Vern arrived before their dust settled. I told him about what I had seen, and he just laughed. “Goes with the territory,” was his only comment about it. Well, I had committed myself to this, so I was going through with it.
We drove to a nearby place that Vern believed held opportunities to noodle a catfish out of its hole in the bank. We entered the water and worked our way along a bank. Vern found a hole and had me feel of it with my foot so I would know what to look for in the future (like I was really going to do this in the future). Then he pushed his foot deep into the hole to determine if there was something in there, and there was. Just what it was remained an unknown at the moment. Then Vern dived under the water.
I thought for a while Vern wasn’t coming up, but eventually he surfaced with his hand in the mouth of a big catfish. And the fight was on. I managed to get the rope looped around the fish’s tail and started dragging it to the shore. Vern was trying to retrieve his hand, which the catfish had decided to keep as a souvenir of the event. Ultimately I dragged the fish onto the ground and tied the rope to a nearby tree.
First things first, Vern’s hand needed help. We used a t-shirt to form a wrap around his hand and forearm where the skin was missing and held it on with some masking tape. Then we cleaned the fish. We had just finished packing it into Vern’s ice chest when we had a visit from the Department of Game and Fish. (Or was it Fish and Game?)
“You boys just noodling around?” We answered that was what we were doing. “Well good, ‘cause if you was fishing, I’d have to check your licenses.” The warden looked over at Vern’s arm and said, “Looks like you took a nasty fall there. You might want to go have a doctor look at it.” With that he got back in his truck and drove away.
I actually had a valid fishing license for this state, but I doubt Vern did. And I hadn’t really thought that noodling might be illegal here. Most likely the warden thought Vern had already paid a price worthy of a noodler.