Off The Hook: Survival Fishing With Your Bare Hands

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Noodling-champimage – Lee McFarlin, Noodling guru (public domain photo viaWikimediaCommons)

A wise and talented angler once said he had mastered his craft so well that he could catch a whale with a toothpick. While this declaration can be classified as hyperbolic hogwash, catching fish without a rod, reel and hook is quite common in parts of the United States. Noodling, or hand fishing, is the practice of catching bass and other fish with your bare hands. It is not entirely clear where the term noodling originated, but the two most common theories revolve around the slipperiness of catfish and the hand-fisherman’s arm hanging like a noodle after a catch. Hand fishing was originally a Native American tradition that was passed on to Europeans who arrived in the 17th century. Noodling is somewhat of a novelty today but not a bad skill for the well-rounded fisherman and survivalist to learn.

Noodling Basics

Most noodlers lie down on the banks of a river with slow-moving waters and lower their arm bicep-deep into it. Others take a boater safety course and use the same technique while lying down on flat-bottomed boats in the middle of the water. The trick is to allow your arm to soak long enough to stop emitting heat and remain as still as possible – a crucial technique to know when in survival mode. Wiggle your index finger as if its an insect or worm ensnared in vegetation or struggling in some way. It may take a while for a fish to come, but you have to be quick when there’s one in reach. The newbie noodler makes the mistake of trying to grab the fish by the torso, which simply will not work. Either aim for the gills where you can actually “hook” the fish with your fingers or get underneath the fish and toss it into the boat or on the bank.

Survival fishingPhoto by Flickr user shannonpatrick17

Legal Issues

Those itching to try their hand at noodling (no pun intended) should first check their state and local statutes. Hand fishing is currently legal in only 18 states, most of them in the Southeast, according to Wikipedia states that:

“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, it was legal in some form in eleven states, sometimes with restrictions on the species or sizes of fish, and on the specific methods that may be employed: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. It has since been legalized in Texas.”

Most states that outlaw noodling cite the inherent dangers that come with it, mainly the potential of attracting animals like snapping turtles, snakes and alligators. Missouri cites, along with the aforementioned dangers, potential harm to catfish populations as its reasons for banning the practice. Anybody caught noodling in the Show-Me State are charged with a misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Of course, if you’re stranded in a remote location and are forced to use noodling to survive, the law should be the last thing on your mind.

Okie NoodlingA scene from the documentary, “Okie Noodling” by Flickr user shannonpatrick17

Popularity Driven By Media

Though noodling is considered a “hillbilly” activity by many observers, its uniqueness has spawned several popular television shows and movies. “Hillbilly Handfishin'” premiered in August 2011 on Animal Planet. It lasted only one season and 12 episodes but introduced the activity to an entirely new audience. Despite its silly-sounding title, the show offers potentially lifesaving techniques for fishing without tools. “Okie Noodling,” a documentary based on hand-fishing in rural Oklahoma, is another way to learn more about this practice.

It’s always advised to watch the pros when learning about any sport or survival skill. Lucy Millsap, a 19-year-old Texas woman, won the 14th Annual Okie Noodling Tournament in Paul’s Valley, Okla., in June, catching a 72-pound catfish with her bare hands.

By George Matsukani

George is a travel writer and part-time nurse from the Midwest. When he’s not working or writing, you can find him tending to his hobby farm.

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