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Noodling is fishing for catfish using one's bare hands, and is practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places their hand inside a discovered catfish hole. Many other names are used in different regions for the same activity.
The term "noodling", although today used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. The origin of the term is unknown. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod and reel, speargun, etc., but this usage is much less common. The term has also been applied to the similar capture of snapping turtles.
Due to concerns over the safety of noodlers and sustainability of fish populations, the technique is illegal in some states where it was once traditionally practiced. As of 2002[update], it was legal in some form in fourteen states, sometimes with restrictions on the species or sizes of fish, and on the specific methods that may be employed: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. It has since been legalized in Texas and West Virginia.
Although the concept of catching fish with only the use of the arm in the water is simple, the process of noodling is more complicated. The choice of catfish as the prey is not arbitrary, but comes from the circumstances of their habitat. During the spawn, catfish will dig or enter a hole underneath a structure submerged in the water. The female will lay the eggs in the hole and the male will guard the eggs. When the eggs become fry, they will leave and the male will also leave the hole. To begin, a noodler goes underwater to depths ranging from only a few feet to twenty feet and places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. If all goes as planned, the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the fisherman's hand, usually as a defensive maneuver, in order to try to escape the hole. If the fish is particularly large, the noodler can hook the hand around its gills.
Most noodlers have spotters who help them bring the catfish in, either to shore or to their boat; noodling in pairs is considered important for safety, and also makes it a more social activity, with noodling partners often forming long-term partnerships.
A typical weight for a flathead catfish caught by noodling is 40 lb (18 kg).
Noodling as a sport
On Late Night with David Letterman in 1989, Jerry Rider climbed into a tank with a catfish and caught it using his bare hands. For a time Rider became the face of noodling, and appeared in countless news stories and numerous newspaper articles around this time as well. Though he is no longer considered the "face of noodling", Rider is still a prominent and active noodler, appearing in both a Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs pilot episode and in the History Channel's current television series Mudcats. Rider even traveled to India to demonstrate noodling while visiting the country for the weekend. Most of these stories were light-hearted variety pieces with little information; very few of them looked at the practice as a serious sport, as noodlers may have wanted.
The closest thing to a serious examination of noodling accessible to popular culture was a documentary released in 2001 called Okie Noodling, directed by local documentarian Bradley Beesley. The documentary covers the history and current practice of noodling as it is practiced in Oklahoma. During the course of the documentary the realization that there were no official noodling contests spawned the First Annual Okie Noodling Tournament held in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. The tournament brought in young people from across Oklahoma to a sport mostly passed down from father to son. The release of the documentary and its subsequent airing on PBS affiliates has, if not made the sport more popular, raised its profile to more than just a local phenomenon.
Although not mentioning women in noodling explicitly, through interviews Okie Noodling helps to explain women's relationship to the sport. Although some women relate stories of times they have noodled, the majority of practicing noodlers were and are men. Many of the male noodlers explained how they began noodling when their father took them out, and how they planned to bring their sons into the world of noodling. Also, as others who have written on noodling have expressed, if noodling is to be considered a sport, then (at least to outsiders) it is most definitely an extreme sport, which tend to draw a disproportionate number of male followers.
Noodling can result in superficial cuts and minor wounds to the noodler. This can be reduced by wearing gloves and other protective clothing. Losing fingers is also a risk, whether from the bite or infection. Most holes are deep enough that diving is needed, so there can be a danger of drowning. A person with confident swimming abilities may be caught off guard by the sudden added strain of carrying a large fish to the surface. Spotters can alleviate this danger, but it is still present. A wounded noodler ten to twenty feet underwater might not be able to return safely to the surface and may drown. Clothes may get tangled or snagged on roots or rocks, so some noodlers wear only denim shorts.
The greatest physical threat posed to noodlers, however, comes from other forms of aquatic life found in catfish holes. Far more dangerous than catfish are alligators, snakes, beavers, muskrats and snapping turtles, who will take over abandoned catfish holes as homes of their own. Deaths have been reported in many states, most notably Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana as the wildlife is particularly stacked against human entry in waters greater than three foot depth. More than one death in a singular incident was reported in Oklahoma in 2009 and later confirmed by Field and Stream, those deaths were due to a nearby dam structure causing surging water currents that overpowered noodling anglers. Both men involved during the practice had been confirmed as noodling when they were killed. Neither of the deceased Oklahoma individuals were determined to be wearing life safety vests or flotation devices when their bodies were found according to Oklahoma State troopers.
In popular culture
Noodling has often featured in or been referred to in popular media, including for example, the King of the Hill episode "The Redneck on Rainey Street", an episode of the TV series Cougar Town, the 2009 movie Leaves of Grass, which featured Keri Russell as a noodler, the 2009 film Fish Tank, the Ben 10 Omniverse episode Gone Fishin', and the 2016 movie Deepwater Horizon. It has also been featured on various networks such as the Discovery Channel, History Channel  and Animal Planet.
The popular Noodler's brand of fountain pen ink was named in reference to noodling, described as "a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play", and many bottles of ink depict images of catfish.
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- http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/Fishing/documents/FishingRegs12-13_web.pdf ** Rough fish may be caught by hand in Wisconsin... Catfish are considered a Gamefish and may not be caught by hand.