THEY are North America's forgotten monsters: ooze-born, wall-eyed, grotesquely barbeled. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet, canoeing down the Mississippi in 1673, were warned of a demon "who would engulf them in the abyss where he dwelt." Mark Twain, two centuries later, claimed to have seen one more than six feet long and weighing 250 pounds. "If Marquette's fish was the fellow to that one," he wrote in Life on the Mississippi, "he had a fair right to think the river's roaring demon was come." When pioneer mothers did their wash by a stream, another story goes, they sometimes heard a splash and a muffled yelp. Where a little boy had been playing, only a few bubbles were left.
They were the stuff of nightmares then -- the troll under the bridge, the thing at the bottom of the well. But unlike most bugbears, giant catfish truly exist. Whereas sturgeon and alligator gar -- their only rivals for size among American fish -- have been driven from their dominions, catfish still prowl thousands of rivers and streams. If anything, they are swelling back to mythic proportions: in the 1990s alone more than forty-five state records have been set for catfish (including one for a 111-pound blue cat), though none has equaled the one in Twain's story. People spear them with pitchforks or snag them with hooks spooled in by lawn-mower engines; some use boron rods with titanium guides, ultrasonic lures, and bait spiked with amino acids that seize control of the fish's brain. But a few old-timers and thrill-seekers prefer to dispense with equipment altogether. Barehanded, they meet the monster in its lair.
Late in the spring, when the chill comes off a river, catfish look for places to spawn: hollow banks, submerged timbers, the rusted wrecks of teenage misadventure -- anything calm and shadowy will do. Once the eggs are laid, the male chases the female off with a snap of his jaws. Then for days he hovers over his glutinous brood, waiting for the first fingerlings to emerge, pouncing on any intruders. That's when the hand-grabber is most likely to find his quarry. Wading along the shore or diving to the lake bottom, he reaches into likely nooks and crevices, wiggling his fingers and waiting for a nip. When it comes, he hooks his thumbs into the attacker's mouth or thrusts an arm down its throat and waits for the thrashing to stop. If he's lucky, the thing on the end of his arm is a catfish.
GROWING up with Lee McFarlin, I never took him for someone who had odd and intimate dealings with fish. In our high school, in north-central Oklahoma, he was one of those kids who sort of drifted from view, cutting classes and tooling around in his '62 Chevy Impala. Back then the only clue to his secret life was the faint tracery of scars along his forearms. A second-generation hand-grabber, or "noodler," Lee caught his first fish barehanded at the age of eight. "I'll tell you what it felt like," he says. "You know little puppy dogs, when you shake the fire out of them when they're teething? That there's exactly how it felt." Catfish may not have fangs, but they do have maxillary teeth: thick rows of inward-curving barbs designed to let food in but not out. When clamped on your arm, catfish also have an unfortunate tendency to bear down and spin, like a sharpener on a pencil. "It ain't nothin' but sandpaper -- real coarse sandpaper," an Arkansas noodler told me recently. "But once that thing gets to flouncin', and that sandpaper gets to rubbin', it can peel your hide plumb off."
Though Lee's first bite didn't break the skin, it infected him like a venom. He's married now, with two children and a plumbing business, but he still starts noodling when the wheat turns golden brown, and switches to even bigger game at summer's end. His house, plain enough on the outside, is appointed in Blood-sport Baroque on the inside: heads looming from every wall, giant fish twisted in desperate poses, freezers full of strange meats. Last spring, to make the place a bit more cozy, Lee brought home a baby bobcat.
Today, noodling with his family and me on a lake just west of our home town, Lee needs less than five minutes to launch his boat, gun it across the lake, and leap into the water as we drift to a stop. A few seconds later he calls me over to a crumbling pier. "Sit here," he says with a weird grin. "I want you to feel something." I scoot onto the concrete, trying to look nonchalant. If Lee was enigmatic in high school, I was worse: bookish, bilingual, taught to be terrified of the outdoors. ("The bones of drowned boys," my mother was fond of saying, "lie at the bottom of every farm pond.") While Lee was trapping muskrats and skinning wild pigs, I learned about the American wilderness by reading James Fenimore Cooper in German.
Sitting on the pier now, I can feel reverberations of the old panic. Beneath me all is quiet at first. But then, as Lee fumbles under the concrete with both hands, something begins to stir. Another dip of his thick shoulders and the thing is fully awake, thrashing in the water six inches below me, thrumming the concrete with sharp cracks of its tail. We've found it -- the troll under the bridge. All that's left is to reach down its throat.