Catfishing with your bare hands

Friday, February 3, 2017
Hand grabbing catfish isn’t for the faint of heart. Normandy Lake and Percy Priest in Nashville were the locations for the author’s noodling escapades.
Photos by Troy Basso

Noodling, for the uneducated in such matters, is the art of using your hands to catch these big catfish. Yes, your hands are the primary tool for this style fishing. This method for fishing is practiced, for the most part in the southern states. In my research, I found out that it’s so effective that many states have made it illegal based on both angler safety and fish population concerns. It appears to only be legal in 13 states currently.

Since I am predominately a fly fisherman it was necessary to seek out some expertise on this matter because I was not just going to start sticking my hands in some random under water holes hoping I would get it right, fingers are important you know. As it turned out I had some friends who were really into noodling and had been for 30-plus years. Did I mention this is a very tight lipped group of fisherman?

While preparing for my first trip out I had assumed that this was a non-targeted sport in which you just caught whatever catfish happen to be living in a given hole at the time. As it turned out I was very wrong in that regard. Although flathead catfish tend to live in these holes all year the rest of the catfish family also frequents holes in the spring, during the spawn. I learned that these guys know, with a surprising level of accuracy, based off water temperature, which species of catfish should be in the holes on a given day.

When the day finally came is was more than a little apprehensive about this whole debacle. I had a couple questions I needed answered before I was ready to try this. I asked how does one prevent getting snake bit or attacked by a beaver? The answer was “well buddy just don’t stick your hand in a snake or beaver hole, that did not help my anxiety at all.

It was a very short boat ride, as in about 10 feet, to the first spot. It was under the ramp we had all just launched our boats on. My guide for the day ran his hand under the concrete pad and said “Uh oh” with a big grin. He said it was a Small fish” and pulled out a 12-pound flat head. Apparently his small and mine are at opposite ends of the spectrum! He then said that’s was just the male fish, now we will get the female, I was more than just a little surprised when he reached back under the ramp and called for a stringer man, as this was, in his words, a great big ole girl. At that point there was a boat on the ramp and he proceeded to pull out a 30-pound female fish! The fact these fish were even in that spot was amazing and that one was a trophy fish left me standing there wondering. To clarify the stringer man either reaches in the hole’ or dives under, then reaches in the hole and strings the fish through the lip, gill stringing is frowned upon. Once they get the beast “strung” the man and the fish both come out of the hole simultaneously! It’s at this point things can get a little sketchy. The man is trying to get some air and the catfish it either trying get back in the hole or make a run for open water. To call it chaos is putting things mildly. The whole thing lasted about 10 minutes and we were on our way to the next spot.

Once back at the ramp we had five good fish in the cooler and a total of 15 caught that day. I had one final question before we departed and that was why nothing got muddy that day. I mean catfish live on the muddy bottom of a lake, right? Since we were setting at the ramp where we caught the first two I ended up back in the water. I could feel that the hole had been cleaned out and there was a large ring of peas sized gravel inside, much like a bass bed you see in shallow water. It was that moment when I remembered there had been two fish in that hole earlier. A split second later one of the little stinkers bit my hand.

Troy Basso is a freelance writer and fishing guide. He can be reached at