Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Catfish noodling, or how to lose a finger for less than $5

Here's my submission for this week's Sports Commentary. I know I should have hit up the "Tyson's a huge wuss" issue, but I've burned out on it and I now have a hard time caring. So, without further ado:

Catfish noodling,
or how to lose a finger
for less than $5


Fishing is one of those activities called "sport" only under the broadest definition of the term, at least in my own experience. In fact, the "catching fish" part of fishing has been more an annoyance for me than anything else, since catching fish requires that my attention be shifted away from the cooler or from napping in the sun.

But there are some for whom this version of fishing is woefully insufficient, and they prefer to take matters into their own hands -- literally.

They call their activity by different names: noodling, hogging, dogging, or tickling, depending on the local parlance, but the premise remains the same. They catch catfish with their bare hands by reaching into submerged holes in riverbanks and creeks, hoping a large cat will latch on to fingers wiggled around near their mouths.

It's been reported that catfish weighing nearly 200 pounds have been caught with this method, and the sport certainly has its devotees. In fact, at www.catfishgrabblers.com, you can order your own copy of "Girls Gone Grabblin,' " a film that features women from across the American South wrestling catfish out of their muddy homes and onto shore. I swear, I am not making this up.

Part of what attracts catfish noodlers to their particular sport is the danger inherent to sticking one's arm down a dark hole in a riverbank. Catfish are not the only creatures that live in these dens, and participants have picked up nicknames like "Stubby" and "Nubbins" after finding other residents, which include, but are not limited to, water snakes and snapping turtles. A snapper has approximately zero motivation to refrain from chomping off the fingers of a noodler who has disturbed his sleep.

Even catfish are far from harmless. When irritated, catfish will sometimes rocket from their holes, and the spines along their dorsal and pectoral fins can cause punctures, poisoning, and infection.

Catfish also tend to grow to remarkably large sizes, and noodlers know that having a spotter is essential. Your chances of survival may be slightly improved if you have someone around who's willing to catch your feet as you're dragged down into the depths of a murky river by a belligerent catfish who doesn't want to be caught.

To make matters worse, catfish have sandpaper for teeth, which means that if you've got your arm down the throat of a particularly fierce one, you stand to lose a fair amount of skin. I'm not certain on this, and I'm sure your primary care provider would disagree with me, but I'd say this would be a relatively cheap way to have tattoos removed.

If losing skin isn't enough, consider joining the ranks of the true elite -- those few who dare noodle for snapping turtles. One member of an online forum advises: "I've heard if you're noodling for snapping turtles (a man's sport), you can tell if the snapper is facing into the hole (about two thirds of the time) or towards you by feeling the edges of its shell. It's the ones that are facing out that make it a real sport."

I suppose by "a real sport" he means "requiring weapons-grade stupidity." As far as I'm concerned, snapping turtles are a variety of monster, and I prefer to leave them alone completely. Who's to say that you're going to feel "the edges of its shell" before you learn first-hand why they call them "snapping" turtles?

Catfish are considered "rough" fish by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and the noodling or "tickling" season runs June 1 - August 31, during daylight hours only, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. So if you're out of your mind and have decided this is something you'd like to try, now's the time.