Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Noodling With the Saints

I mentioned catfish noodling in a rather offhanded way in my previous post. I do not wish to leave the impression that the sport lacks its refinements and its esoterica. Ignorance of the fine points can end in impairments temporary or permanent, including wrinkled skin, "muddy water pallor", psychic trauma, lost limbs, time away from family and the office, even death. Noodling is considered "extreme sport" everywhere except in Alabama, where it is considered "nontaxable income", in Texas, where it is a cornerstone of Governor Rick Perry's "statewide job creation initiative without President Obama's he'p", and in Louisiana where it is simply "Cajun dating."

"His Cajun date"

I have a brother-in-law who grew up and still lives in the precincts of the "Ar-KAN-sas" stretch of the Arkansas River south of Wichita. He is a wealth of local catfish lore and an unfailing mine of accurate information on the topic. From him I learned that, historically at least, rivers oftentimes harbor large catfish because those rivers, and by extension their resident catfish, were receptacles of sewage. Time may be the river I go a-fishing in, as Thoreau would have it, but Oh Lord preserve me from eating what I catch (or catching what I already ate). "There's a good reason those catfish are so big," Dave concludes sagely. All in all, the catfish noodler must feel a lot like a dog chasing a car - what do I do with it if I catch it?

"I'll mount her, and then I'll take her to Branson."

The way Dave tells it is (and this is pretty much as it came from the horse's mouth): 
"Every weekend, this old boy at the office would go down to the river where they dumped all those old junk cars, and noodle for the catfish that would hide out in the cars. And there got to be some pretty big fish in there, and every Monday he'd come to work and talk about these big catfish he was catching. Well, this other fella got interested and kept after him to go down to the river with him and show him how it's done.

"Now the way it's done is, you get down on the bottom and feel around in the water and when you feel a catfish lying there in the mud, you slide your hand in under its belly and you rub its belly back and forth - sort of relaxes the fish. When the fish is relaxed, you slide your other hand into its mouth, hook your fingers in there behind the gill plate, and slowly bring the fish up out of the water. They'll come right up real easy until they break water, and then they just go crazy. You've got to be sure your feet are on the bottom and that you're not over your head. People have been dragged under and drowned by big catfish - that's why noodling was illegal in Kansas for years.

"There are two kinds of catfish in the Ar-Kansas. There's flathead catfish . . .

and there's blue catfish . . . 

"Any catfish will have these gristly little sharp teeth along the jaw. When you bring up a flathead, he'll just flop on your arm. But when you bring up a blue, he'll spin around and shred your arm with those teeth. Now these boys go out on the river together one weekend, and the next Monday Earl comes into work with his arm all bandaged up. We asked him, Earl, didja have a good time noodling? Oh, yeah.

"So we asked Carl what happened, why was Earl's arm all bandaged? Well, it happened that every time this old boy felt around on the river bottom and found a flathead, he'd get his hand into it and bring it up. There, he'd say, that's how you do it. And then whenever he'd find a blue he'd say to Earl, OK, here's one, now you try it."

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