Catching catfish in Oklahoma isn’t something that normally makes for a big headline, but when a 63-lb cat is caught by hand … well, that’s not an ordinary fish tale.
Thousands of people, by unofficial estimates, crowded into Wacker Park in Pauls Valley Saturday, June 19, to watch close to a thousand pounds of catfish (maybe more if you count all the ones hauled in under 30 pounds) be weighed in at the 2021 Okie Noodling Tournament. The fishing festival started 20 years ago at Bob’s Pig Shop and now boasts to be one of the largest hand fishing tournaments in the world.
The park was filled with spectators sitting in lawn chairs under the big trees sipping on their favorite cold drinks on a hot Oklahoma summer day waiting for the big fish to be weighed in on stage. Rules for the competitors stipulated that the catfish had to be caught in Oklahoma waters and checked in live by 6 p.m. Divisions included a category for scuba, natural, women’s and 18 and under.
While waiting for the air horns to blow, signaling that a catch was coming in, people browsed the craft booths set up and had several food booths to choose from. A popular choice seemed to be a big box of crawfish washed down with a pitcher of beer. Competitive events were also held throughout the day to entertain the crowd like a noodle eating contest, a watermelon crawl, a river relay team competition, a men’s only wet T-shirt contest (which consisted of being the first to thaw out a frozen T-shirt and be able to put it on), a kid’s catfish eating contest and, of course, the Okie Noodling Queen Competition.
Another popular attraction was a very large glass tank where some of the noodlers put their giant catfish while waiting for the tournament awards and winner to be announced that evening. People could sign up and pay to get in the tank and see what it’s like to grab one of those big monster-looking fish by hand. Of course, they were able to clearly see the fish which isn’t something the actual noodlers are able to do.
Noodling for catfish involves going under the murky Oklahoma water of a lake or river, holding your breath, finding a hole and sticking your hand in it. Your fingers (or arm or leg or toes) are the bait. Yes, other living creatures like snakes or snapping turtles could be in that hole other than a big catfish. A few tips on an outdoor website suggests having a noodling buddy along to help and for safety. Basically, find a hole, stick your hand in it and get ready to get bit. Once you get the bite, grab the lower jaw of the fish and pull it out.
Most noodlers say they are motivated by the adrenaline rush. It’s about overcoming the fear of the unknown and a level of surprise that no practice can prepare you for.
In Saturday’s competition, the Big Fish Award went to Nathan Williams in the Natural Division. His catfish weighed in at 63.31-lbs. Southwest Oklahoma fisherman Sammy Cooper Sr. from Apache took third place in the Natural Division with a 49.82-lb. hand catch.