Catfish Noodling

Stephan Goin (left) and Brandon Roe nab a big one on Logan Martin.

Noodling: noun

1. Fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole.

— Wikipedia

2. A form of fishing in which someone runs into a lake and searches for holes on the bottom with his foot. Then he inserts his finger into the hole and lets something bite it. Hopefully, it’s a catfish.

— Urban Dictionary

By Loyd McIntosh

Photos by Jerry Martin

The following activities are illegal or prohibited in the State of Alabama: Bear wrestling matches, to chain an alligator to a fire hydrant, to wear a fake moustache that causes laughter in church, and to be blindfolded while operating a vehicle.

Those illustrations may be a bit far-fetched, but the overall point is adventure, and real endorphin-creating, adrenaline-pumping adventure can be hard to find — at least the kind of fun that doesn’t land you in the Graybar Hotel or get your face plastered on one of those mugshot magazines you see on convenience store counters.

For those looking for a good time that will get the blood flowing and, literally, get you in touch with nature, look no further than noodling, an outdoor water sport gaining in popularity among young men throughout the area. Noodling, sometimes referred to as grabbling, is a type of fishing that eschews rod, reel and worms in favor of the bare hands.

From late-May through early-July, noodlers make their way to lakes, ponds and streams around St. Clair County. Mostly young men, these gonzo outdoorsmen look for holes near or in the banks, preferably under a dock or a boat ramp, where large catfish may be hiding. Once an appropriate spot is found, a noodler will leap over the side of their boat and into the murky water.

After a couple of tense minutes as God only knows what takes place under the water’s surface, the noodler emerges, one arm wrapped around the flapping catfish, the other inside the mouth of the catfish. And thus you have an emerging adventure sport that is growing in popularity on lakes like Logan Martin and Neely Henry.

“I’ve been dong this every summer since I was 14 or 15 years old and I love it,” says 19-year-old Cropwell native, Stephan Goin. “There is a just a rush you get when you catch that fish that I can’t explain. It’s just a lot of fun.”

Goin, an aspiring competitive angler, was introduced to noodling by a friend while out fishing on a hot summer day, one of those days when the high temperatures makes sitting in a boat with no shade unbearable. “We had been out there for a while and he said to me, ‘Have you ever been noodling?’ I said ‘noodling? What’s that?’ He went through the process and taught me how to land a fish, everything I needed to know,” Goin says.

After identifying a smaller hole and learning the basics, it was time for his initiation. Goin jumped in the water and noodled for his first catfish. The first few moments were tense and alarming, but, before long he was hooked.

“I felt something brush my hand then it hit me and scared me a little. It hit me so hard with this blunt force. I thought ‘I’ve go to do this’ and I pulled him out eventually,” Goin says. “I remember telling my mom and dad about it and if they had ever heard of noodling. It was like telling your parents you were going to buy a motorcycle.”

Brothers Stephan (left) and Morgan Goin on Logan Martin Lake

His first catch was a 15-pound catfish, a dwarf compared to the monsters he and other noodlers catch now. Goin says he caught a 50-pounder while noodling in Logan Martin Lake and knows of a 70-pounder caught by some others, also in Logan Martin. With monsters like these and other creatures lurking in the water, not to mention the drowning dangers inherent in the sport, noodling can be a wee bit hazardous.

“It can be kind of dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve heard of people drowning because they’ve followed a catfish into a hole that’s too small to get it out of and can’t get back to the surface,” Goin says. “Really what you have to watch out for are snakes, beavers and snapping turtles.”

Noodlers also need to look for angry homeowners who may not want them digging around their boat ramps or those who think they’re up to no good. Goin says it’s also not uncommon to encounter a marine policeman or a game and fish warden while chasing catfish on the banks of Logan Martin. “I’ve never gotten in trouble. I always have my fishing license on me and that’s always seemed to answer any questions when we get stopped,” Goin says.

“I remember one old guy just started cussing up a storm at us one day and called the Riverside Police on us,” Goin says. “They handled it, and after it was all over he said ‘God bless y’all.’ How do you like that? He cussed me up and down and then asked God to bless me.”

For many, noodling is still a mystery and, of course, controversial. Young men get the police called on them for far less than going underwater and emerging with a 35-pound catfish in their arms. And, at the moment, noodling isn’t legal everywhere in the United States. Texas only legalized noodling in May of this year. So, the big question is what does the law in Alabama say?

“It’s completely legal but you must have a game permit, and you’re limited to one fish over 34 inches long per person,” says Jerry Fincher, a conservation enforcement officer with the Alabama Department of Conservation Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries and, himself a fellow noodler. Fincher says noodlers who get crossways with the law haven’t sought the blessings of the homeowner before jumping in the water.

“You have to get permission from the homeowner before you can noodle around their docks or boat ramps. We ask for permission and if he says ‘no,’ then we’ll go on to someplace else,” Fincher says.

Fincher says many homeowners believe that noodlers cause problems to the foundations supporting boat ramps and docks and, therefore, don’t want them around. However, he says noodlers actually eliminate the problem actually caused by the fish which burrow holes on the bank to lay their eggs. Still, he says, if and when permission is granted, remember to be respectful and help give this budding sport a good name.

“Don’t use any profanity, clean up after yourself and just be a responsible citizen,” he says. “It’s a growing sport and a lot of fun. It’s a lot more popular now than it used to be.”

Goin would like to make the sport even more popular in the future. He has introduced the sport to professional B.A.S.S. anglers, football players and local adventure seekers and envisions a day where noodling tournaments and organized events are regular occurrences.

“I’ll take anyone out who wants to learn about it,” Goin says. “I don’t charge anyone. It’s just for the fun of it.”

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