The name “noodling” is just one of many monikers for this type of fishing. In Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina it is called grabbling, while in Arkansas and Missouri it is called hogging. Tickling or dogging is what it is known as in Kentucky and stumping in Nebraska. Its official name, according to many state wildlife regulations, is hand fishing. The origins of the name noodling are unknown, but it is speculated that it comes from the slippery nature of the catfish, which can feel like a wet noodle.
Noodling is legal in only a handful of states, most of them being in the southern United States, where catfish can weigh over 100 pounds.
The first written documentation of noodling in America was by a trader-historian named James Adair, who wrote of southern Indians “diving under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter,” offering their hand as bait to a fish that “immediately seize it with the greatest violence…then is the time for the diver seize the voracious fish by his tender parts, hath a sharp struggle with it against the crevices of the rock, and at last brings it safe ashore.”
The story of noodling on the American frontier became intertwined with the legends associated with catfish, such as their supposed gargantuan size and propensity to eat small children. For example, in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, a catfish six foot long and weighing 250 pounds is claimed to have been seen.
Another factor contributing to the development of noodling was that it has the very practical aspect of being able to put a lot of meat on the table in a short amount of time, as most specimens taken this way are quite large.
Shelter for a nesting catfish, such as along submerged highways, under rocks or mud banks, hollow logs, or inside of abandoned drums.
Once favorite nesting sites have been found for a body of water, catfish are likely to be in the same spots year after year.
This is not a consideration to be taken lightly because people have drowned while participating in this form of fishing!
A noodler should be a good swimmer.
An inexperienced noodler should fish with a partner. There is a danger of not being able to surface because a catfish is too strong, and also the possibility of getting trapped in falling logs or other debris.
Wear as little clothing as possible, to avoid getting snagged on sticks or branches, and to make it easier to resurface after a deep dive.
The advice on wearing gloves is conflicting. Some noodlers say gloves will help protect the skin on one’s hands, for catfish do have strong jaws and teeth like rough sandpaper. Catfish also have leading rays on dorsal and pectoral fins that can cause cuts or puncture wounds. Others say gloves will only increase the chances of getting snagged on surrounding materials in the holes. Some noodlers eliminate the question altogether by using a hook, usually about 6 inches long, instead of fingers, to grab the fish.There are other animals that could occupy that dark hole being reached into, such as dangerous snapping turtles, poisonous snakes, or beavers. For this reason, some noodlers probe the holes with a cane or stick first: if it feels rough, it’s a snake, if it feels like a rock, it’s a turtle, and if it feels smooth, it’s probably a catfish.