Catching catfish while standing in shallow water near a hole, using your own hands as the bait and hook, is known as noodling. It’s practiced primarily in the southern United States. Noodling goes by other names, but they all mean the same thing—fishing by putting your whole arms into deep dark water, no other equipment, just a friend, the water and the fish.
Catfish are the choice for noodling because they like dark cool waters and often select holes and pools under brush near the banks of creeks and rivers. Their pools are isolated in their depth from the rest of the water surrounding them so you can stand. Here's what you need to know before noodling.
You need to bring a friend as a spotter. The spotter will help you find the hole, block it in, and then make sure you make it back above water. Spotters basically have the job of making sure you don’t drown and then helping you and your catfish to the boat or shore.
Where to Noodle
Search in shallow water for a catfish hole so you can wrestle the catfish without being too deep. Usually catfish holes are near the shore, in fallen logs, under rocks or puddles in mud banks. Catfish nest wherever they can be well submerged and feel safe.
Block the Spot
Once the you or your spotter find a catfish hole, or suspected hole, you need to block off the exit routes. Use the shore, your spotter, rocks and sandbags. Then poke a stick into the hole to see if you can tell if it is a catfish. At the very least, you should be able to tell if it is a snake or not.
Go underwater as little as you have to and put your arm into the hole as far as you can. You want to feel a catfish latch onto your arm in an attempt to get away or protect its nest. They do have very sharp teeth, so it will hurt, especially if they start rolling. If the fish doesn't bite, grab it. Pull open its mouth and wriggle your fingers through its gills and hold onto it that way, also making it harder for the fish to bite. Dip the fish to the surface and throw it far onto shore. If need be, do so with the help of your spotter.
The obvious danger is to the arm that goes inside the hole and the fish. If the fish bites, you will certainly be scratched, and can receive anything from a slight scrape to a pretty serious gash. And of course, there's always the threat of drowning, especially with the deeper water and larger fish. You can lose a finger or get a subsequent infection. There are the surface risks of trolling around in such muddy shallow waters, of cuts from rocks and branches. A shallow water hole could also be the spot for an alligator, snake, snapping turtle, beaver or muskrat.
Noodling is only legal in 13 states because the disturbance of their nests and eggs threaten the population. Also, whether you keep the catfish after all of that effort and struggle depends on each state’s laws. For a casual interest, noodling is way too much work to risk the dangers, especially when regular fishing of catfish is legal and involves little risk, physically or legally. Unless this is a life’s passion, noodling is not worth it, especially in a state where you have to throw it right back.
If the whole thing seems like too much effort, you can also try cultivating catfish at home with an aquaponics system!