Like chocolate gravy, poke salad, and the word “ya’ll,” noodling is something people who don’t grow up in the rural parts of Oklahoma don’t always understand.

For those of you who don’t know or who think it involves Chinese food, noodling is fishing with just the bare hands – reaching into an underwater hole and pulling out a catfish by its mouth.

It isn’t the safest sport in the world, but it’s one that seems to get in the blood (which wouldn’t be hard to do, since having one’s arm chomped down on by a huge catfish tends to draw at least a little bit of that particular body fluid).

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been, but I used to do it every year,” said Bill Kessinger, patriarch of a family that includes three generations of noodlers. “You’ve got to do it when they’re nesting, around June. The biggest one I’ve ever noodled – or helped noodle – was 80 pounds, and we got him on the [Illinois] River by what they used to call Chimney Rock. They call it Elephant Rock now.”

Kessinger said a flathead catfish’s nest can be located by looking for places along the riverbank where the fish have “cleaned out” a spot at the opening of a cave or ledge.

Goggles help with underwater viewing, but Kessinger said that in his younger days, he just dived under the surface and looked around bare-eyed.

Once the nest has been found, the noodling begins (keep in mind, you’ll be holding your breath the whole time).

“When you reach back in that whole, you better have your fist doubled up,” Kessinger said. “If you’ve got your fingers spread out, they’ll get ahold of them, but if you double up your fist, they’ll just nudge you.”

Naturally, a flathead doesn’t care much for arms being stuck into the abode where he or she intends to raise a catfish family.

But according to Kessinger, they can be reasoned with.

“You can reach in there and rub their belly, and they’ll kinda calm down,” he said. “Then you just reach into their mouth, and hold on tight.”

Kessinger added that once the catfish has been pulled from its hole, there’s another trick to keeping it from getting too violent.

“You can just lay them across your belly, and they’ll calm down,” he said.

Kessinger’s grandson, Cameron, said Bill must have discovered that balled-up fist trick after he passed the family noodling tradition on to him, because he’s come close to having a hand forcibly removed by a somewhat upset flathead.

“He [Bill] was there the first time I noodled catfish,” said Cameron. “He just said, ‘feel around for his lips and grab him,’ but it didn’t happen that way. The flathead jumped out and grabbed my hand.”

That became Cameron’s preferred method of noodling – just use the fingers for bait, and let the catfish do all the work.

“You don’t even have to grab; just stick your hand in there they’ll just clamp down. It’s kind of like someone closing a book on your hand really hard,” he said, before reconsidering the sensation. “Actually, it’s probably more like getting bitten by a dog.”

In fact, a dog bite seems a bit mild compared to some noodling mishaps Cameron said he’s heard of – though, fortunately, never experienced himself.

“I’ve never reached in on a beaver or a snake, but I’ve heard of guys losing a finger doing that,” he said. “But when you look at that hole underwater, there’ll be a cleaned-out place outside it, and you know that’s not a turtle or a beaver. It won’t be anything but a catfish.”

Hand protection seems like a logical noodling option, but Cameron pointed out that can be even more dangerous than the actual noodling.

“You don’t want to wear gloves, or anything that’s made out of cloth,” he said. “You can get caught on something underwater and drown if it won’t tear loose.”

Game ranger Brady May used to do some noodling himself – until one eye-opening experience on Lake Tenkiller, at Terrapin Creek. May and another game official were trying to catch a nuisance beaver, but during the course of the evening, May saw just exactly who he was sharing the water with during his noodling forays.

“Every 50 yards or so, there was a cottonmouth lying on the bank,” he said. “So that’s when I decided not to noodle in Tenkiller anymore.”

But evidently, a lot of other folks do – some legally, some not so legally.

May said Oklahoma law allows noodling only for non-game catfish, and noodlers must use only their hands – no hooks or poles with hooks attached.

“Non-game catfish is flathead catfish only,” he said. “So they have to turn channel catfish or blue catfish loose.”

May said that during the 1980s, non-noodling fishermen became concerned that noodlers were depleting the catfish population, and several new regulations were implemented at that time.

The daily limit for noodling is three fish, compared to 10 for pole-fishing or trotlining. Also, the fish have to be at least 20 inches long.

May said some noodlers have modernized the sport with scuba gear, which is legal, but they’re subject to the same catch and length limits. Scuba noodlers are allowed to use spearguns for flathead catfish, but only between June 15 and July 15.

“Since the lake went down, it’s exposed some secrets that someone didn’t want game rangers to find,” said May. “We’ve been finding a lot of sunken barrels that people have put in the lake for catfish to nest in, and a lot of them have hooks they’ve left in the barrel, so when they come back up with a catfish, we can’t see the hooks.”

May said he’s removed several “catfish traps” from Tenkiller during the past couple of weeks, but they seem to be even more popular on Grand Lake and Lake Eucha. Rangers have removed 100 traps from Grand since the dry spell set in, and 75 from Eucha.

He added that both legal and illegal noodling appear to be a tradition in a lot of Northeastern Oklahoma families.

“I caught some young guys on Fort Gibson Lake last year,” he said. “I recognized their last names as names of older guys we’d caught before. They were third-generation illegal noodlers.”

As for Cameron Kessinger, he’s found that noodling’s more than just a way to catch some food for the table: It can also be performance art.

“Me and my brothers, we try to go noodling every time we float the river,” he said. “People from Tulsa like it, so we’ll kind of put on a show. We’ll find a catfish, but we won’t bring him up until someone comes along to watch.”

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