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Catfish Noodling | The Ultimate Guide

Catfish Noodling | The Ultimate Guide

Posted by Laura Ulveling on

Learn How to Go Catfish Noodling

Standing in the water, reaching into a muddy hole, waiting for a fish to try to eat your hand… on purpose? HECK YEAH… let’s do this!!

This month, the Groove Life Project Adventure Team hopped in the Adventure Van and rolled out to southern Oklahoma to experience the insane sport of Catfish Noodling. We put this guide together in hopes that you’ll get out and find a noodlin’ guide and experience the thrill of “gettin’ throttled” and wrestlin’ a big ‘ole flathead out of a muddy hole. (Don’t worry, you’ll understand that sentence after you read this adventure guide to catfish noodling)

 

The Ultimate Guide to Catfish Noodling

 

Our Noodling Adventure

 

What is Catfish Noodling?

When you hear the word “fishing,” you probably imagine standing knee deep in the water, lazily throwing a line and hoping to hook a few trout for dinner. While some people enjoy that kind of fishing, others prefer fishing with an adrenaline rush. Some call it grabbling… others call it hand fishing or tickling. We know the sport as “Noodling.” No matter what you call it, the essentials are the same: dive into murky water, reach into a dark hole, try to get a catfish to attack you, grab it, and hold on with all you’ve got until you jerk it out of the water and hoist it over your head for a moment of sweet victory! You just caught yourself a catfish!

You’re probably thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that?”

noodling giant catfishBesides the #1 reason that it’s a ton of FUN, noodling is a unique kind of experience that you just can’t find every day. There’s something about the cool water, the thrill of pride that fills you as you realize you caught a flathead catfish with your own two hands, and the messiness of it all that is absolutely thrilling! Plus, noodling is a group sport - for safety reasons and just for fun - so you’ll find yourself laughing and sharing stories with your fishing buddies for years to come!

If you search the internet for information on noodling, you’ll find a whole lot of videos of “prize winning fish” and “noodling catches” but it is a lot harder to find information on how to go noodling yourself. We decided to fix that for you, because we want you to be able to experience the mess, sweat, and pride that comes from an afternoon of noodling. 

In this guide, we’ll give you the absolute best information on the history of noodling, safety tips, training information, advice from the pros, and more! So, what are you waiting for? Let’s get fishin’!

Who Goes Catfish Noodling (Is it for me?)

Noodling is one of the craziest ways to catch a fish that you could imagine! It how to go catfish noodlinginvolves serious strength, a whole lot of mud, and a little bit of crazy. Put all those things together and you get what is quite possibly the most redneck sport in America. Also known as “Hillybillly Handfishing,” noodling is most common in the midwestern and southern states. Surprisingly enough, noodling is actually illegal in 34 states! Don’t let that stop you, though! There are still sixteen states where handfishing IS legal… but we will fill you in on the details of why it’s illegal and which states are good to go in a later section.

While noodling is typically a redneck sport, it’s not just for the country boys and girls out there! Noodling is a fantastic sport for anyone who wants to experience nature fully - by getting in and living and breathing it! It gives you the opportunity to spend an afternoon with a group of buddies, laughing and living life, and then enjoy the spoils of your catch in the evening, fresh-caught and delicious. It’s also a fantastic opportunity to try something new and challenging… and as long as you are very careful and go with a professional it should be safe, too!

If getting into nature and catching your own dinner sounds like fun, yes, noodling is for you.

So how long has noodling been around? Well, let’s find out.

noodling giant catfish

History of Noodling

Noodling just might be the most American thing you could ever do! In The History of the American Indians that was written in 1775 by James Adair, the author describes a curious method of hunting catfish that was used by Native Americans! This method involves capturing the fish while they’re relaxing by the rocks in the water and pulling them out by hand! Sounds familiar to us… *wink* 

Since those days, country boys took a lesson from those who knew the New World best. Travelers started snatching fish out of the water as a fascinating method of fishing. It used to be a necessary activity and people relied on it to put food on the table! Now, it’s just an adventure junkie’s dream! 

While the purpose of noodling has changed over the years, the joy and sense of accomplishment is still the same… if not even greater! We encourage you to dig deep into your inner “wild side” and charge out into the water, ready to capture a fish of your own.

noodling for catfish

What is a flathead catfish?

You can go noodling for a wide variety of catfish, but the most common fish to catch with this method is the flathead catfish.

A flathead catfish is one of the largest North American freshwater fish! They are so startlingly huge that you might possibly think it was a whale just cruisin’ by you if you came across one in your local lake! Okay… we may be exaggerating a bit, but when you’ve grabbed one of these things by the lip and looked it square in the eye, you’d be a little intimidated, too.

hand fishing for catfishFlathead Catfish can live up to a maximum of 24 years and they grow BIG. In fact, one flathead catfish was discovered in the Arkansas River that weighed a total of 139 pounds and was close to 6 feet long! That’s the size of the average 16-year-old male human! Talk about a big fish... imagine catching that one with your bare hands!

Flatheads breed during the months of June through August, and they are very protective of their eggs during that time… which is why you can find them burrowing in the mud during the summer months! The interesting thing about flathead catfish, especially to those of us who love noodling, is the way they take care of their eggs. 

The female births the eggs, but as soon as she is finished, the male catfish scares her out of the burrow or hole the eggs are in and stands guard over them! The catfish eggs hatch and are ready to leave the hole within 7-10 days and the male cares for them until they are ready to leave.  Those 7-10 days are prime time for noodling because the catfish will attack your hand when you reach into their hole - creating a prime opportunity to catch them!

If you’re worried about the safety of the catfish eggs, you shouldn’t be too concerned. While it’s good to be conscious of our roles in nature and care for the earth, (we take that very seriously) keep in mind that noodling has been going on for hundreds of years and the catfish are still thriving. 

True noodling experts will only keep the fish they are going to eat or enter into a tournament, releasing all the rest to go back to their eggs. If you’re concerned about endangering the species, you can always check with your state’s department of wildlife and fisheries to make sure you are good to go. In fact, you should probably check that out anyway because “hillbilly handfishing” is only legal in about 16 states! We’ll go in-depth on that a little later.

Understanding the Language of Noodlin’ 

One of the most challenging experiences for the Groove Life Adventure Team was trying to understand the language of Oklahoma noodlers. We thought our best approach at helping you with this transition was to create a handy-dandy pdf for you to download. You can click here to get our glossary of noodling terms (trust me, it’s worth the time!)

Is Noodling Safe? (ha!)

You’re sticking your hand in a hole, waiting for a massive, 50lb fish to attack you. Nope… this ain’t safe. But hey… the adventurous things in life are the ones that are a little risky, right?

Here’s the good news… Noodling is probably one of the safest adventures the Groove Team has been on so far. And, as long as you’re careful and follow the advice we’re about to give you, it should be a safe and FUN experience for you as well!

So, here are a few noodlin’ tips that will keep you as safe as possible.

Go with a group

noodlingWe recommend that you never go noodling alone. Think about it… you’re diving down in the water to catch a massive catfish. You are also entering the home of many different animals that may not appreciate an invader. Plus, there are sticks, large metal objects, and random things in the water that could snag your clothes or hair. While these complications are not too common, you should always go with a few friends so they can make sure you’re safe. This adventure is not worth the risk of your life so make sure you take every precaution.

Dress for success

Those tree branches are out to get you! Okay… maybe not, but you do need to be careful when you pick out your noodling garb. Make sure you wear fitted clothes so a piece of clothing doesn’t end up snagged on a branch or shark tooth. (Wait… that’s shark diving... a whole different adventure but yes, we did that, too).

Watch those hands

The fun thing about noodlin’ is the risky feeling of reaching into a dark hole, waiting for a fish to bite! Just make sure you are ONLY reaching for fish in the darkness, and if you grab something that feels like a snake or a turtle, get the heck out of there! Also, you’ll probably want to be on the hunt for flathead catfish only, as the other types of fish have a real’ hard bite!


Avoid Any Obstructions or Dangerous Obstacles

Catfish are always on the lookout for great places to nest. They often use large metal or concrete objects as entrances to their home. Rusty 50-gallon barrels, concrete slabs, leftovers from old bridges and homes, and other dangerous objects are often where you find the big ones. This requires the noodler to be very careful as they scrounge around in these areas. Make sure you go slow when you are exploring these holes. 

When the Groove Life adventure team was noodling, we even encountered an old abandoned vehicle under the water.

danger of noodling


Make sure you’re legal

Yep, you heard us right… noodling is only legal in 16 states! That means if you are in one of the 34 states that it is NOT legal, noodling would be breaking the law! These laws do change on a regular basis so make sure you do your research and see if noodling is legal in your state! If it is not, you can always go to another state for noodling or enter a tournament based in a state where noodling is legal… no harm done!

There may be other aspects of catfish noodling that are illegal. For example, in some states it is illegal to use sticks to prod the catfish in their holes. 

Another legal consideration is to make sure you have the proper permits. A state fishing license must be purchased in most states and in some areas a city permit is required to do any type of fishing. You should be able to acquire all of these permits for around $20. In most states, annual passes are not necessary, you can usually purchase 3, 5 or 7 day passes.

Click here for a list of websites where you can acquire state fishing license. City permits can usually be purchased at local bait shops and marinas for a minimal fee. 

Prepare for minor cuts and scrapes

Chances are, you could get some cuts and scrapes from your adventures capturing a fish. Just bring along a first aid kit and be sure to disinfect any cuts you might get, and slap a little antibacterial ointment and a band-aid on that bad boy. Though the cut will most likely be minor, you still need to make sure bad bacteria from a lake doesn’t make its way into the cut. If you experience any strange symptoms after an abrasion in the lake, be safe and get it checked out. There are many strange types of bacteria that grow in still water… it’s always best to be extra careful.

Now that you know the “dangers” of hand fishing… it’s time to head into technique! You’ll be out there noodling in no time.

Are there different types of Noodling?

Like we said earlier, noodling is called by many names including hand fishing, grabbling, gurgling, and even tickling, but the basics are the same! In essence, the term “noodling” covers all categories of “hand fishing.” If you’ve ever grabbed a catfish with your hands alone… well hey, you’ve been noodling!

There aren’t too many types of noodling. While the name changes pretty regularly, it’s still just another word to describe digging a catfish out of the mud with your hands.

All “noodling” uses the same bait… wiggling your fingers and hoping for a bite! There really is no need to change a good thing, and noodling is one of the most fun extreme sports you could ever do.

What do you need to go Noodling?

All you need is two hands and a whole lot of guts! A boat is nice, but not necessary. 

Here’s a list of the things we recommend you bring along on every noodling adventure.

First Aid Kit

As we mentioned before, one of the keys to safety in noodling is making sure your scrapes and cuts stay clean. You’re probably going to get a few bruises and scratches along the way, but if you make sure they are disinfected and cleaned as soon as possible you should be just fine. Again, if you notice any type of fever or strange reaction after getting a cut, make sure you check with a medical advisor in the unlikely case that some bacteria from the water could have entered through the scrape.

Click here for a checklist of items to carry in your first aid kit.

Gloves

noodling Pro tip from the Groove Life adventure team… bring along a pair of gloves! This will greatly reduce the number of scrapes you will collect on your hands and arms, and will protect you from those sandpaper catfish teeth! Plus, if you accidentally stick your hand near a snapping turtle, your fingers will be covered and less likely to be gobbled up.

A few friends as crazy as you

Yep… we learned just like when you hit the gym, you’ll need a few spotters while noodling. This is so if something happened to go wrong - your shirt snagged on a stick or the catfish wouldn’t let go and you’re running out of air - you have some buddies who can help you out and make sure you’re safe! Plus, if one of these friends happens to own a boat, you can skip right over the next step! 

We learned that the standard procedure for noodling is to catch the fish, wrestle it out of the hole, make your way to the surface and yell something like, “Help me!” There is no need to take any chances. Even the pros follow this procedure.

Boat and Truck

In order to have success noodling… you gotta go where the catfish are! The Groove Life team found holes as close as 3-4 feet off the bank. You can find holes anywhere. As a matter of fact, the first holes we find in our Project Adventure Noodling episode are along the edge of a boat ramp, just a few feet from land. 

That being said, to make it easier to find the big ones, we recommend that you plan on using a boat and a truck to pull it. The cheapest way to surmount this hurdle is to find a friend who has a boat and go with them! A bonus to that method is noodling is such a fun - and infinitely more safe - sport to do as a team.

Confidence

Take it from us… noodling is crazy! You’ve got to have a whole lot of confidence if you’re going to fish with your hands! Our best advice to you is this: don’t worry about it and just GO FOR IT! You are about to have the time of your life.

It’s especially easy to muster up courage when you’re noodling because your noodling team will know for sure that there is a “fish in the hole.” When you are standing there looking down into the water and trying to take the plunge, your faithful friends will probably be yelling at you to go get the fish! If you don’t go quick, someone will push you out of the way and get it for you.

So, now that you know what you need, it’s time to learn how to get started on the “how” of noodling.

How do I learn how to do this?

Now, that’s a great question!

Most of the sports we choose for our Groove Adventure Team involve some sort of certification or a trained instructor, but noodling is just a little bit different. As long as noodling is legal in your state and you’re familiar with the requirements, you can hardly go wrong.

That being said… it takes a whole lot of skill to get those big fish! How else do you know where to go, or how to get a fish to bite? Here’s our answer… find the “baddest hoodlum in the midwest.”  In typical Groove style, we decided that we wanted the best noodling expert in the universe as our instructor, so, naturally, we chose noodling champion Marion Kincaid. Marion is best known for his role on the TV Show Mudcats which follows five expert hand fishing mavens into the murky waters of Oklahoma. Marion learned his hand fishing techniques from his father and grandfather, and he passed those skills along to our Groove Adventure team.

Now, you might not be able to go with Marion Kincaid - although if you can, we highly recommend him as an experienced teacher - but here are a few places you can find a skilled noodling instructor!

Enter (or attend) a tournament.

Noodling tournaments are a lot of fun. In addition to noodling, some of them also include games and other contests! As you’re strolling around looking at all the big catfish and enjoying the fun activities, take some time to try and make connections! You’re sure to find an experienced noodler hanging around that would be happy to teach you a thing or two about hand fishing. Sweeten the deal with a few bucks and you’ll have the weekend of your life!

Go with someone who knows what they’re doing.

If you aren’t able to drop by a tournament, it can be hard to know where to find a skilled noodling instructor! Luckily for you, we are here to help! We put together a list of some fantastic noodlers that you can contact to show you the ropes!

The Swamp Donkey Noodling Team

noodling guides

Training with the best… picking a teacher / how to choose a Noodling instructor.

Now that we’ve shared a few of our favorite Noodling experts with you, you’re probably wondering how we picked these specific folks as potential guides. We’re including a list of the qualifications we look for in a noodling teacher so you can go out and find one near you! 

Experienced

This probably goes without saying, but when you’re selecting a noodling teacher, make sure you check out their background! How many years have they been noodling? Have they won any tournaments? Are they respectful of the earth and the creatures that live on it? These are some fantastic questions to ask when you’re deciding who to go with on your first noodling adventure!

Sense of humor

Noodling with Marion Kincaid was one of the most hilarious experiences of our lives because he has the best sense of humor! After all… spending so much time digging around in the muddy river for catfish tends to lend itself to a few jokes! Trust us on this one… you’ll want to have a hilarious guide when you’re learning noodling. Plus, when someone has an knee-slappin’ sense of humor, they have just the right personality to keep you relaxed and motivated!

Respectful of the law

Keep in mind, Noodling is only legal in 16 states, which means it’s illegal in 34! You’ll want to make sure you have a guide that is familiar with the state laws and can keep you from accidentally stumbling into trouble.

A little bit crazy

It takes someone that’s just a little bit crazy to use their hand as bait for a 70lb catfish! You want a guide that can take your adventure to the ultimate level of success, and that probably means someone who is willing to do things that most people would call slightly insane!

The Swamp Donkey Noodling team helped us to find holes and drag big catfish out of them. The one thing that set the Swamp Donkeys apart was their willingness to go the extra mile checking holes and diving into some scary (but relatively safe) situations. Cody from Swamp Donkey dove 14 feet with an oxygen hose and spent several minutes underwater in order to pull TWO huge flatheads from the bottom of the lake! It was more than a little bit crazy.

When is Noodling Season?

If you were paying attention when we gave you all the info you ever wanted to know about flathead catfish, you probably remember that they are very protective of their eggs! 

Well, while they are busy protecting those eggs, that’s when the noodling pros hit the river, ready to snag some catfish! Catfish nesting season starts in mid-June, depending on the climate, and ends around mid-August. 

The catfish nesting period for each group of eggs is around 7-10 days so you’ll find the fish that are guarding their eggs right during that time period.

Where to go Noodling

Catfish live in ponds, rivers, and lakes… basically wherever there is muddy freshwater! That being said, there are a few places that you are more likely to find them, if you know where to look! Here are a few tips to help you as you go searching for those huge flatheads hiding in the mud.

Near a variation in the shoreline.

If you’re seeing a log, tree branches, rocks, or a similar obstruction in the water, that is a fantastic place to find a flathead catfish! They love to burrow into the loose mud near something like a log or a large rock that provides them with cover and safety.

In and Around Obstructions in the Water

The best place to find those nests are in and around obstructions in the lake. This is particularly uncomfortable, but a great place to get attacked by the big ones (which is ironically a good thing.) Barrels, concrete slabs, boat docks, and logs in the bottom of the lake are ideal spots to find the holes.

Marion taught us to run our feet along the bottom edge of a boat dock to look for holes. When you toes don’t reach  the back of the hole, you may have found yourself a catfish den! Run your hands in until you find the back and sweep from side-to-side to see if you feel a fish. They call this “sweepin’ the hole.”  

You can do the same with logs in the bottom of the lake and other debris. If you look for a bit, you will most likely find a momma catfish guarding her nest or a pappa taking care of those unhatched little ones. If you do search around obstructions, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, we want to remind you to be very careful. Go with a large group and wear fitted clothing. You do not want to get caught underwater. A big fish is never worth throwing caution to the wind.

In water that is just the right temperature.

Catfish spawn when the water is between 66 and 75 degrees, so right in the middle of that range is the perfect sweet spot! When the water hits 70 degrees, it’s time to hop in your boat and go looking for flatheads!

Where Noodling is legal.

Yep, you heard that right! Noodling is actually illegal in 34 states, so you’ll need to double-check this list before you raid your local river for catfish!

We’re including a list of the states that are currently a YES for Noodling. Keep in mind, these laws change all the time, and even if it’s legal in your state there may be some limitations so make sure you’re looking into the details and checking the fine print before you dive in!

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maryland
  • Mississippi
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Wisconsin
  • Texas
  • West Virginia

Now that you have the inside scoop on where to look for catfish… here are a few bonus tips!

noodling guide

Just some advice from the professionals… 

Now that we have experienced a full-fledged noodling tournament, it’s time for us to share some of our seasoned wisdom with you all, so you can have the best noodling experience possible!

Here’s what the process is going to look like:

You hop in a boat and head way out where the water is cool and the catfish like to lurk. Dive down or dig in the mud a little bit until you find a hole that is catfish-sized (the bigger the better.) Stick your hand in the hole, wiggle your fingers so they look like noodles - see what we did there? - and hope the catfish attacks it! When you feel that hammer strike, grab the fish by the bottom lip (Marion calls it the suitcase handle) or gills and pull it out! Then, pose for pictures because that right there is a fantastic profile picture moment.

Sounds simple enough, right? There are a few tidbits of know-how that separate the pros from the amateurs and we’re going to share those with you today!

Here are a few pointers to make sure you find that big ol’ flathead catfish on the first try.

Check the area for slimy wood

Yes… you heard that right! If the logs surrounding the area you’re searching have a layer of slime, chances are a big ol’ flathead is right around the corner! 

Feel the Thunder!

Keep your foot near the hole for a  few seconds and if there’s a fish in it, you’ll know it by the rumble! The catfish beat the sides of the hole with their tail and you can feel it “thump.” If you are with Marion Kincaid or the Swamp Donkeys, you’ll hear them say “I feel the thunder.” That’s how you know there’s a fish in the hole!

Have your friends create a “barrier.”

Once your target catfish realizes that you are trying to catch him, he’s going to try and make a wild escape! Have your friends stand in the way of open spaces to block the catfish in so it can’t easily escape! Teamwork really does pay off in the end! 

Put your feet in the hole and turn your feet toes out to cover the largest space. Don’t let it out or you’ll be called a few choice names and you’ll get a raggin’ from your noodling partner.

Check #1: Runnin’ Your Hand in the Hole

Dive under the water, if the hole is too deep to sweep it from the surface, and run your hand in the hole as far as you can until you feel the back of the nest and sweep from left to right (sweepin’ the hole.) Don’t be afraid to stick your arm in all the way to your armpit if necessary. It’s worth the stretch if there’s a lunker in there. If you feel a fish, tickle it a bit and see if it strikes. If it doesn’t strike, feel around for a grabbin’ spot and see if you can get it without the bite.

Check #2: Leggin’ It

If you can’t feel a fish or if your arm is too short to get to the back of the hole, you may have a hole big enough for a big one! That’s where leggin’ it comes in. Stick your leg in the hole and repeat the sweeping motion to see if you find a fish too far back for your harm to reach (we’re not joking about this!) This is a technique used by the pros to get the tournament fish. Sometimes those holes are BIG!

Wrestle it Out of the Hole

Once you have the suitcase handle (or catfish bottom lip) in your grip, it’s time to wrestle that joker out of the hole. It may barely fit and he’s out to beat you, so it may require quite a fight to get him out. When  you know he’s cleared the hole go to the next step.

Wrap You Legs around the Body and Yell for Help

If it’s a big one, it’s primary goal at this point is to escape your grip. It may roll and rip your hand up if you don’t have gloves on, so you better hold on hard, the blood will be worth it. Before you make your way to the surface, wrap both legs around the body of the fish and lock your ankles. Don’t worry, your buddy will help get you on your feet when the fish is secure. When reaching the surface, immediately call out the name of your closest friend and let him save your life, and your fish!

Secure the Fish with a Stringer

Your buddy should be waiting for you with a stringer in hand. Grab the stringer or let him help you run the stringer through the gill and out the mouth of the giant catfish and loop it through the metal ring. Wrap the stringer around your arm 2-3 times to make sure he doesn’t get away. This fish is still trying desperately to escape, so hang on and enjoy the ride!

Hoist the Catfish Over Your Head in Victory

And of course you can’t forget when the fish is secured and calms a bit to lift him up with both hands over your head to show off your amazing catch to all the eager co-noodlers, and especially any spectators that may be lining the banks of the lake! And don’t forget, this is the perfect time to get that wall hanger photo of you with your trophy catch. 

Release the fish after you take a (super awesome) photo

One of the reasons why so many states restrict noodling is because they want the catfish to thrive and noodling catches a fish while it is guarding the eggs. If you release the catfish after catching it, that fish will head right back to its hole and guard its eggs again… no harm done! Make sure you release the fish you aren’t going to eat (and that’s probably most of them if you’re being honest) so noodling can continue and the fish can thrive.

Have fun!

We probably don’t even need to say this… but make sure you’re enjoying the moment! Breathe in the fresh air, laugh with your buddies, joke around a little and savor the time in the outdoors! Our mission at Groove includes the words “inspire adventure” and we want to do that by getting you out into nature to enjoy and fully live it with all of your heart!

Summary

We hope this guide has been helpful for you as you make the decision to try Noodling for yourself! You do have to be a little bit crazy and a whole lot of fun to get out there and fish for some crazy-huge catfish with your hands! As wild as it sounds, noodling was a fantastic experience that gave us a whole new appreciation for those who came before us and had to catch their dinner if they wanted to eat! We had a blast noodling with Marion Kincaid and hope that you will find an experienced guide and give noodling a try for yourself! 

You won’t regret it for a second.

Keep groovin’!

 Appendix:

15 Things You Need To Get Started Catfish Noodling. Wideopenspaces.com

How to Catch Catfish: Noodling Tips. 1Source.basspro.com

Readers offer a variety of ideas about origins of noodling. Oklahoman.com

The Art of Noodling Catfish – How I Became a “Noodlin’ Ninja.” Anglr.com

 

Check out our Behind the Scenes Discussion on Noodling