Outdoors / Sports

Barry Jackson, of Oakland, Miss., makes his way back to the boat after catching a 40-pound catfish during a noodling tournament on the Tennessee River. Noodling requires anglers to reach their hands into cracks and crevices and pull giant catfish out with their bare hands. (William DeShazer/The Commercial Appeal/MCT)

Noodlers go beneath the surface to do battle with monster catfish

COUNCE, Tenn. -- To some, it probably looked like Coty Taylor, J.R. Sweat, Barry Jackson and Will Harlow were just looking to cool off as they waded into the Tennessee River below Pickwick Landing Dam on a recent Saturday morning.

But it soon became obvious this was something else.

Taylor began taking deep breaths and ducking beneath the surface for several seconds at a time near an old concrete boat ramp while the others walked on the slab and tapped it with old broken fishing rods.

After his fourth trip under water, Taylor emerged with a 12-pound flathead catfish in his hand.

This is a sport called "noodling" -- and Taylor understands if you think it's a little crazy. But he insists you shouldn't knock it until you've had at least one big catfish bite down on your knuckles.

"It's not like you're out there fishing in a boat, tossing a lure trying to pull a fish out of the water into your world," said Taylor, who helped organize the inaugural River Cats Noodling Tournament earlier this month. "You're down there with them in their world, on their home turf. When you put your hand in a hole and a big fish bites down on it, you get a rush like you wouldn't believe."

Some who've never experienced the sport might not use the word "rush" to describe the feeling of blindly sticking your hand into an underwater hole and hoping for something that weighs up to 60 pounds to chomp down on it. But experienced noodlers know how to avoid the dangers that so many people fear about the sport.

Snapping turtles, beavers, muskrats and snakes are all possible encounters when you're blindly navigating the murky waters of the Tennessee River. But knowing where to look -- and more importantly, where not to look -- can help noodlers avoid such dangers.

"I was fishing up here a few years back around July 4, and I had fished this river from one end to the other without catching a single fish," Sweat said. "But I saw this guy cleaning big catfish, and I decided to befriend him and find out where his fishing hole was and what he was using for bait."

When Sweat asked the man what he'd been using for bait, the man held up his right hand, wiggled his fingers and began explaining the art of noodling. He told Sweat that blue and flathead catfish wallow out dens under stone structures during the spawning season, and they'll vigorously attack anything that invades those dens -- including fingers.

Then he gave him some of the best advice a noodler can get.

"He said when you run your hand into a hole, if you can go straight or left or right, it's fine," Sweat said. "But when you have to go up, that's where air gets trapped, and that's where you find snakes and snapping turtles. You want to avoid those places."

Even those who obey that golden rule of noodling still sometimes come home with battle scars -- like Mississippi angler Barry Jackson did Saturday.

Jackson and his tournament partner, Will Harlow, located a giant flathead catfish that seemed determined to stay put under an old concrete slab. But the two finally worked together to coerce the fish from its den, and Jackson had blood trickling down his arm as he hurried the fish to the bank.

"Don't worry, that's my blood," Jackson said. "The fish is fine. But man, what an adrenaline rush. There's just nothing else like it."

Jackson and Harlow were still shaking several minutes after the fish had been landed -- and it ultimately helped them earn big-fish honors at 35.2 pounds.

"I don't care what you do outdoors," Harlow said. "Killing a 14-point buck, catching a 10-pound bass -- there's nothing better than that."

The fish often burrow several feet under the concrete structures and then use their tails to move mud and rock to block the entrances. Noodlers sometimes have to move rocks to reach the fish and even use broken fishing rods to poke at the fish to move them into grabbing range.

Then they have to deal with those teeth.

"Catfish don't have teeth like we have teeth, but they've definitely got teeth," Jackson said. "Dragging your hand out of a catfish's mouth without a glove on is like trying to pull your hand between two pieces of sand paper with somebody holding them together as hard as they can."

Each team was only allowed to weigh in two fish at the tournament, and the team of Tracy and Gage Davis of Ecru, Mississippi, took first place with a total weight of 53.6.

Noodling has been a subject of controversy in the past because some people believe the vulnerable spawning fish should just be left alone to procreate. But this tournament was a mandatory catch-and-release event -- and to encourage noodlers to take good care of their fish, teams were assessed a 10-pound penalty for weighing in dead fish.

"We don't have any interest in removing these big fish from the river and keeping them from laying their eggs," Taylor said. "All we're trying to do is introduce more people to the sport and show them how much fun it can be without harming the resource."

Taylor hopes to make the tournament an annual event, and several signs suggest he's on the right track. More than 100 people gathered for the weigh-in, and Taylor has amassed an impressive collection of sponsors who he expects to be on board again next year.

"It was amazing how many people were willing to jump on board with this," Taylor said. "We had about a dozen great companies like HB Outfitters in Ramer that were anxious to help out.

"I expect it to just get bigger next year -- and I hope we grew some new noodlers today."

(c)2014 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)

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