Catfish noodling just might be the most unique type of fishing in America. Throughout the south, some anglers forgo rods, reels, bait, and tackle and take a simpler, yet more mind-boggling approach to fishing for catfish. From mid-March to mid-July when waters heat up to around 70º, you can find fishermen (and fisherwomen!) waist-deep in water and elbow-deep in a mysterious hole in murky water. Using just their fingertips for bait, the best “noodles” break the surface victorious, having won a battle of sorts with a hefty catfish. Sounds too crazy to be true, right? Wrong. Josh Coker, 27 of Twin City, and a few of his buddies, like all trustworthy anglers, have photographic proof of their noodling adventures.
“I had heard of noodling before, but I hadn’t ever done it until about four or five years ago,” he said. “My buddy, Daniel Palmer from Augusta, called me up one day and asked me to come out and try it. I took my boat to Clark Hill; I was just going to watch. I wasn’t going to do it. Then I saw them pull out this big ol’ catfish for the first time using nothing but their arm, and I was like, ‘Alright, let’s do it!’ I tried it, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Coker’s first catfish caught that way, he estimates, weighed about 10 pounds. His largest catfish to date caught by noodling weighed a whopping 55 pounds. The reaction he gets from people, as do most noodlers, is the sport seems “crazy.” Then, the skeptics try it for themselves once and understand the appeal.
“It’s like an adrenaline rush to be honest with you. At least it is for me,” Coker explained.
Unfortunately, when he and his friends want to chase the thrill and beat the beast, they have to travel at least an hour from Emanuel to do so. According to Coker, the best places to noodle are lakes like Clark Hill, of course, and Sinclair. (Ponds typically don’t have the right kind of beds, and native wildlife like turtles as well as the currents make noodling in rivers dangerous.) Ideal spots in those lakes are places with sandy bottoms and hard tops, like underneath boat ramps, docks, rocks, and trees. Mama catfish usually wallow out a hole in the sand, lay their eggs, and stay in the safety of the bed—until noodlers come along.
“The process itself is actually really simple,” Coker continued. “Once you find the hole, you dive down, stick your arm inside the hole, and wait for the fish to hit it. Your blue catfish usually only bite your fingertips, but a flathead will swallow your whole arm. Still, when they bite, it doesn’t hurt. Catfish don’t have teeth or anything, but they are really strong! I’ve had one pull my arm out of socket before... But they don’t really fight until you pull them out of their hole. Once you break the surface of the water, they go still again.”
His best advice for the curious brave enough to give noodling a go? Be smart, be well-dressed, be respectful, and, most of all, be safe. Always go with an experienced noodler who can show you the ropes the first few times and have your back in case something happens. You’ll also want to wear good shoes since you’ll use your feet a lot to balance outside the hole and keep steady during the fight. Noodling does require a fishing license and you’ll usually need a boat to get to the catfish holes, so be sure to have your license on hand and the proper safety equipment like life vests and life rings aboard. Finally, be a good angler and release some of your fish.
“There’s not a limit on how many you can catch. We catch and release sometimes, and other times we catch and keep. Just know that you’re fishing on the bed, so it’s not a sport where you can keep everything because that’s going to hurt the population. Other than that, just have fun!”