Catfish Noodling Blues 

by Aleksei Morozov

„Lord, I wish I was a catfish, swimming in that deep blue sea, I would ‘a had all good-looking women fishing after me” runs an old blues song by Lightning Hopkins. Like many anglers who only heard about this practice, or seen a good-looking girl on the YouTube video, I’m curious about this kind of fishing, and went to Chris Whitaker, a Texan fishing guide who specializes in catfish noodling, for answers. 

The first thing I learn is that catfish noodling is a perfectly gender neutral sport. Whatever old Lightning sings, men and women go after catfish with equal enthusiasm. “They mostly put women in there for advertising” – explains Chris, who has been guiding beginners and experienced anglers, mostly on lakes Fork and Tawakoni, since 2017. While you can do catfish noodling from shore, it’s better to use a boat. Chris has a 18-ft pontoon or a 16 flatbottom boat for his clients to choose from. “I recommend the pontoon because it has shade and plenty of room” – he says. 

Another thing that the old Mississippi delta blues master got wrong – or perhaps simply changed for the sake of the rhyme and on poetic license – is the word “sea”. You can catch a number of species by means of noodling, but it’s the flathead catfish that is the prime object – and it’s decisively a freshwater fish, a bottom dweller who sticks to warm, muddy rivers and lakes

There, when it is time to reproduce, the fish digs a hole, or finds a natural cavity such as a hollow sunken log. The female lays eggs there, and the male guards it, attacking everything that comes near – including you. That’s where you grab the fish with your bare hands, struggle with it, and bring it to the surface. 

“When the fish first bites you try to get him that first time, it’s way harder after that” – says Chris. 

Catfish noodling is not legal in all states, as some biologists are concerned that harassment, and especially catching, of males defending the eggs, may have a negative effect on the species’ reproduction. The states that allow it now are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. However, where the populations of the fish are healthy, catfish noodling doesn’t seem to have a perceivable negative impact, and some states, like Oklahoma, even hold regular catfish noodling tournaments.

The key to success in catfish noodling is knowing the river or lake, the layout of the bottom, and where the catfish may have their holes. “I pick my spots by structures in the water – trees, concrete, and the type of dirt. It varies from state to state” So, you basically can’t just go to an absolutely new to you lake and hope to find catfish straight away? Chris agrees: “When I go to new lakes or look for new spots, I have no expectations of catching a fish”. What it means for someone who would like to try catfish noodling, is that for your first adventure you better hire a reputable professional guide who will make sure you’ll find a lot of fish.

A man and a fish
Chris Whitaker with a catfish he caught

Admittedly, it’s not only fish you can find while catfish noodling. The holes and structures that catfish use to lay their eggs in can be occupied by a number of other creatures, including alligators, snapping turtles, and snakes. Some sources recommend probing a hole with a stick before using one of your extremities, but bear in mind that this is illegal in some states, e.g. Texas. Every expert says that once you poke a catfish, you can’t mistake it for anything else, but local knowledge of someone who is well aware of the local fauna and has experience in telling the species that occupies a hole is invaluable, and a great facilitator of safety. 

Apart from being bitten by creatures other than catfish, another risk factor you shouldn’t ignore is drowning. You’re basically wrestling underwater with a big – the record for flathead catfish stands at 124 lb. – that may be able to hold you underwater for longer than you can hold your breath. Another risk factor is that your clothes may get stuck on a log or other underwater structure, so avoid wearing loose clothes while noodling. Studies show, however, that most such cases of drowning are connected with alcohol consumption, cocksureness, and being alone. Don’t drink and noodle, choose shallow waters, ideally knee to waist deep, have company, and the chances of an accident are reduced dramatically.

In short, it is obvious that your first catfish noodling experience should take place in the company of an experienced, professional guide. The guide will be well aware of all the risk factors on the river or lake you’ll fish, be able to help you in case anything go wrong – and, needless to say, will make sure you catch some fish.  

What you do with the fish – keep the catch or catch and release – is up to you, but catfish can be excellent table fare. “Catfish is my go-to fish” – says Chris – “But if you don’t cook it right, it’s terrible. You need to cut all the fat out and red veins. My favorite recipe is fried fish. Take some catfish filets, squeeze the water off them, then dip in a mixture of cornmeal, salt and pepper. Then drop the pieces in the grease. I like my grease to be 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Fry until they start frosting and turn golden brown”.

One thing you probably won’t get catfish noodling is the blues. “We’re gonna have a good time. We will hit a lot of holes and I’ll give it my best”, says Chris to his clients first thing as they go out, and few people come back disappointed. The primary attraction of catfish noodling is the primal emotions of unmediated struggle with a big, determined fish. See for yourself, book your catfish noodling trip on! 

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