You’ve got to be crazy to do something like that!” laughs Jennifer Samford, public relations director for the Okie Noodling festival in Pauls Valley, the largest and longest-running annual catfish grappling tournament in Oklahoma. Also known as “hillbilly hand fishing,” noodling is so potentially hazardous that all but a few states outlaw it.
Each spring when Oklahoma water temperatures reach about 70 degrees, usually in June, spawning catfish clear out holes in mud banks or underneath brush in rivers and lakes as nests for females to lay eggs. Aggressive males then become babysitters until the eggs hatch. They will attack any intruder.
Bold hunters armed with their bare hands enter the water to search for the fish. Sometimes they have to submerge. Once they locate a promising spot, they jam their hands into the nest to test it. An experienced noodler can feel the difference between a catfish, snapping turtle, beaver, or snake.
If all goes as planned, the catfish latches onto the noodler’s hand, the noodler latches back and the fight is on. The typical flathead caught in this manner may weigh 40 pounds; catches of up to 80 pounds or more have been recorded. Sticking a hand into the jaws of a large fish can be compared to being attacked by a shark. A few people have actually drowned attempting to wrestle a fish from its habitat. Others have been snake- or turtle-bit.
Former University of Oklahoma film student Bradley Beesley tagged Oklahoma as the noodling capital of the world with his 2001 documentary “Okie Noodling.” Media from around the world descended upon the state to film and write about catfish hand fishing. TV aired a number of these features.
Beesley and his film also launched the Okie Noodling event in Pauls Valley, which celebrated its 18th consecutive year in June 2017. It was the first catfish noodling tournament in the state, and is still the largest.
The biggest fish caught during the 2016 tournament weighed 58.8 pounds and won its wrestler a grand prize of $2,000. Five other prize categories ranged from $1,000 down to $50. Up to 10,000 people attend the event and its variety of attractions that includes a Friday night concert.
But if noodling is first in “extreme fishing,” angling for giant landlocked striped bass follows closely in second place. “This is not for the faint of heart,” cautions Bill Carey’s Striper Express guide service on Lake Texoma. Carey claims nothing is more exciting than a giant striped bass exploding on your line. Sticking your hand into the maw of a monster catfish may be akin to a shark attack, but hooking into a large striper is like snagging your line onto a racing speedboat.
Striped sea bass were originally found along the Atlantic coast of North America. Fishing for them dates back to the colonial period. In 1941, they were inadvertently landlocked during the construction of the Santee Cooper Reservoir in South Carolina, whereupon it was discovered they thrived in fresh water. Since then, they have been stocked in numerous inland reservoirs across the central and southern U.S.
A number of major Oklahoma lakes have healthy striper populations. Lake Texoma dubbed striper capital of the world for its massive population of big fish, is one of the largest reservoirs in the nation with its 93,000 acres of surface water. Located behind Denison Dam on the Red River in Bryan County, Oklahoma, the lake straddles the Oklahoma-Texas state line. It is one of only seven inland reservoir lakes in the U.S. where stripers reproduce naturally.
Stripers are native to salt water but, like salmon, naturally migrate up fresh water streams to spawn. They breed only where rivers are long enough and with sufficient flow to keep eggs suspended until they hatch. The Red and Washita Rivers that feed Lake Texoma provide excellent spawning conditions. Most other freshwater striper fisheries are maintained by state-supported stocking programs.
Lake stripers are believed to live for about 30 years and commonly mature at 8 to 40 pounds. The current freshwater record caught in the Warrior River in Alabama topped 70 pounds. The striper record for Texoma is 35.12 pounds. Each September, Kingston, Oklahoma, celebrates the lake with an annual striper festival.
Striper fishing for the novice is most successful with the aid of a guide. Guides know the water and the best bait. Texoma offers dozens of guide services with fees starting at about $300 for one to two persons and averaging out to $125 per fisherman for three or more. Fishing continues seven days a week with good fishing year-round.
Brian Prichard, with a degree in business and contemplating a second degree in philosophy, operates a one-boat enterprise known as Stripers, Inc. He grew up on Lake Texoma at his dad’s boat dock and has been guiding successfully for the past 14 years. He is the only guide on the lake who does not charge a set fee.
Stripers, Inc., he explains, “focuses on giving rather than receiving. We have no set rates. We go fishing as friends and after the trip you are free to give in return what you feel the trip is worth to you.”
Sun-baked and bearded, one of the most colorful guides on the lake, he adds philosophical perspective to “extreme fishing.” It isn’t just about catching big fish, he contends. “It’s about watching the sunrise over the water. It’s about breathing in the fresh air, watching the light reflect off the waves, and it’s about the friendship and compassion between souls. These experiences are priceless.”