Cotton County Noodling Adventure

By Shel Wagner

Folks in other zip codes expect us to be more like Laurey and Curly.  Out-of-staters (and out-of-country-ers) insist upon a certain gingham and barn-dance quality to us Oklahomans, and are confused when we don’t eat every meal from a picnic basket.  Our worldwide fringe-on-top image isn’t going anywhere, but lately you may have noticed a newly-expanded Okie persona.  If you’re from Oklahoma, there’s a presumption that you’re a noodler.

A grabbler.

A mudcatter.
 
We’re all flathead wrestlers and the flat-screen is to blame.  Channel-flippers will notice the bandwidth is neck-deep in hand-fishing programs, most all of which are based in Oklahoma.  Yup, our state is easily the Noodling Capital of the World. 

Would-be noodlers routinely travel from continents away, so it seemed the least I could do to drive across a few counties.  Hand-fishing is the fastest growing industry in Cotton County.  That’s where you’ll find grabbling gurus Bobby Lee and Bobby Leon Sparks:  the fingers behind professional guide service Sparks Noodling (www.sparksnoodling.com).  There’s not a heart-stopping mudcatting incident this father/son team hasn’t faced:  turtle snappings, beaver bites.  If I was ever going to find my noodling nerve, these are the guys to help me do it.   

The day starts with some dry-land noodling, blindfolds, plastic dens, and a clamp that randomly pinches.  I learn that hand-fishing is unlawful in most other states; considered just too hazardous.  Noodling is an Oklahoma tradition, but you’ll need a fishing license.   

Much too soon it’s time to wade in.  We’re at a good “learning hole”:  a city-owned reservoir featuring submerged chunks of cement:  the mudcats’ den of choice.

Bobby Leon finds a catfish hole and scoops up a glob of eggs from inside it, which look like tapioca.  This is what the catfish are protecting, and why they chomp at anything that threatens the nest.

Hand-fishing works best with a buddy to block den exits, or corral fish with a stick.  Most holes are accessible only by diving underwater.  My pulse rivaled that of a hummingbird, even after an hour in the lake, which meant I could hold my breath just long enough to get my eyebrows wet.  I asked if Bobby Lee could find me a mudcat den in shallower water, so I wouldn’t have to dunk my head.

He guided me closer to the bank, which was lined with limber trunks and reeds:  the perfect habitat, it turns out, for snakes.  Several dangled overhead. 

Bobby and Bobby are witty and irreverent, chuckling when the fish they’d helped me corner escaped between my knees. 

Eventually, we knocked on the door of a monster, and after a bit of teasing, I got bit.  In a flash, I felt way more Okie than fresh-faced Laurey, or even Curly for that matter.  I had just become the noodler we Oklahomans are expected to be.

The catfish’s teeth weren’t as razor sharp as I’d imagined, but more like Velcro against my newly-purchased noodling glove.  And I hadn’t expected this “red-necky” pursuit to feel so meaningful.  There was a sense of connectivity to those before me, who’d relied on this skill to survive.

The Sparks believe in catch, photograph and release, so after a few gloating moments we said goodbye to our finned friend.  I promised him “no hard feelings” for the bite to my hand, or for my knicked shins.

Though I’d only traveled a few counties over, my emotions had taken quite a journey:  from trepidation and terror, to camaraderie and triumph.  It was a day I won’t soon forget.  And in my opinion, we could never, ever, have enough days like that.

Shel Wagner is the Executive Producer and segment host of the weekly TV travel program AAA’s Discover Oklahoma.