In the Monster's Maw

Fishing holds a different thrill when you yourself are the bait.

giant catfish

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.

THE origins of noodling are difficult to imagine, much less prove. In North America archaeologists have found fishhooks made of bone, weirs of wood and stone, and perforated shells for sinking nets. But noodling leaves no traces; it is as ephemeral as some of the boasts it inspires. Native Americans, by all historical accounts, had a peculiar genius for killing fish. Hernando De Soto's men, trudging through swamps in search of El Dorado, saw lines of Indians splashing in pools, scaring up fish and whacking their heads "with blows of cudgels." The ethnographer John Swanton collected accounts of southeastern Indians lassoing sturgeon by the tail and drugging fish with buckeye and devil's shoestring. Others mention Indians attracting fish with torches, harpooning them with lengths of cane, and shooting them with arrows.

In 1775 a trader-historian named James Adair first described "a surprising method of fishing under the edges of rocks" among southern Indians.

They pull off their red breeches, or their long slip of Stroud cloth, and wrapping it round their arm, so as to reach to the lower part of the palm of their right hand, they dive under the rock where the cat-fish lie to shelter themselves from the scorching beams of the sun, and to watch for prey: as soon as those fierce aquatic animals see that tempting bait, they immediately seize it with the greatest violence, in order to swallow it. Then is the time for the diver to improve the favourable opportunity: he accordingly opens his hand, seizes 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.


Most Indians, Adair went on to say, were "in the watery element nearly equal to amphibious animals." In contrast, the first Europeans to try their hand at noodling must have been an ungainly sight. Flailing out of the water, gasping for air, they may have tried to do justice to the experience by coming up with new names for it wherever they went. In Texas and Oklahoma it's called noodling ("The way you get ahold of that fish," Lee explains, "it's kind of like a wet noodle, squirming and squiggling"), and in Arkansas hogging. In Mississippi it's grabbling, in Nebraska stumping, and in Kentucky dogging, though any given noodler might have two or three names for it.

As settlers drifted farther down the country's waterways, catfish stories sprang up along with each new town and steamboat station. According to one nineteenth-century report, catfish would congregate beneath a dam on the Kansas River "like hogs in a hog lot," just waiting to be eaten. Sometimes the same men who searched for drowning victims by the dam would strap a gaff hook to one arm and dive for fish. In 1884 one of them went down and came up an hour later -- a drowning victim himself. Tom Burns, a self-proclaimed "old man of the river" in Lawrence, tells a similar story about a boy named Jake Washington. "He hooked him a giant fish and couldn't get loose," he says. "They found them two or three days later, side by side on a sandbar."

Since the great dam-building years in mid-century, American rivers have grown less hospitable to catfish. Brushy snags have been yanked clear, mucky bottoms dredged out, banks scraped clean, till the Missouri River, where some of the country's biggest blues once lurked, has become "a pretty swift ditch" in the words of one ichthyologist. If catfish are getting bigger, it's partly owing to neglect: on the Mississippi Delta, where fewer than 20 percent of all streams could support fisheries in 1979, the Army Corps of Engineers nodded off just long enough for some rivers to recover.

Like the black bears resettling once-ravaged parts of the Ozarks, noodlers may be an indicator species of sorts for healthy waterways. More often than not, though, modern noodlers are less throwbacks than thrill-seekers. Rather than search for wild streams on which to emulate their ancestors, they don scuba gear, dive into reservoirs, and harvest fish from made-to-order catfish boxes -- a southern variation on lobster traps. (One noodling pond I visited in Arkansas had such clean, accessible catfish accommodations that it was called the "hole-tel.") In Mississippi, once home to the scariest noodling waters in America, the sport's best spokesperson in recent years was Kristi Addis, Miss Teen USA 1987. One of her favorite pastimes, Addis told judges at the pageant, was grabbling for catfish on the Yalobusha River. When pressed, she admitted that the mechanics of grabbling were "really hard to explain."

I'M nostril-deep in murky water, sunk to the calves in gelatinous muck. Half an hour ago the troll got away, squirming through an escape hatch beneath the pier. A good omen? I'm not sure. Noodling, I know, is the fishing equivalent of a shot in the dark. For his master's thesis at Mississippi State University a fisheries biologist named Jay Francis spent three years noodling two rivers. All told, he caught thirty-five fish in 1,362 tries: one fish for every thirty-nine noodles. But I also know it's too soon to take comfort in such statistics. From this vantage Lee McFarlin seems dismayingly confident. Perched on the nose of his boat, surveying the shore, he looks like some raw country god, an embodiment of the lake: hair as red as a clay embankment, bright puddles for eyes, patches of freckles like sandbars across broad, ruddy features. "Yessir," he shouts, "I guarantee you we're gonna find us some fish." On his best day, he adds, he caught thirty-five on this lake, all of them by hand.

In the evening's honeyed light the boulders and tumbledown walls along shore look as ancient as Troy. "Used to be a gas station here," Lee says, wading toward a collapsed slab. "They love to hang out here under this old sidewalk." Behind us his kids have set sail from the boat in their water wings, like a small flotilla. "Daddy, can I ketch 'im, Daddy?" one of them squeals, bent on making me look bad. "You promised I could ketch one, Daddy." We shoo him back toward the boat and take up positions around the rock: I'm ready to reach in at Lee's signal.

I'd never been so aware of my fingers as on the days before I went noodling. I found myself admiring them in pictures of myself, flexing them in the mirror, taking pleasure in their simple dexterity. Catfish, I've been told, share their love for calm, shady places with turtles, eels, and cottonmouth snakes. "In almost any small-town café you can find some guy who says he knows a noodler who lost three fingers to an alligator snapping turtle," says Keith Sutton, a catfishing expert and the editor of Arkansas Wildlife magazine. His father-in-law, Hansel Hill, who has been noodling in rural Arkansas for forty years, had an uncle who once reached into a hole and found a "no-shoulders." The snake's bite left a permanent crook in his right forefinger. Some noodlers wear gloves; others probe holes with a piece of cane. ("If it feels rough at the end of that cane, it's a snake; if it feels like rock, it's a turtle," Hill says. "But that catfish is just as smooth and slick as can be.") Lee is a purist. Poles are illegal in Oklahoma, he says, and gloves can get caught under a rock. Better to reach in with bare digits, "so you know where you're at with that fish."

"What in the hell is that ticking sound?" Lee blurts, surging out of the water for air. "It sounds like a time bomb's about to go off down there." I look blankly at him, still focused on my wiggling fingers. "That must be my fish locator!" a local angler yells from a nearby boat. He and his buddies have been downing beers and floating alongside us, trying to get in a little rubbernecking before the sun sets.

"Well, turn that damn thing off!"

Catfish belong to the lineage with the sharpest hearing in the fish world: an air bladder tucked behind the fish's head serves as an eardrum, sending vibrations down an arc of tiny bones to its inner ear. In Florida the Indians used to wear such bladders, dyed red, as earrings. I'm busy imagining this when I see something odd in Lee's face -- a tightening around the eyes. Then, just as quickly, his features relax. "You want to see him?" he says, jerking to one side. I follow his gaze down: there, frowning beneath the water's surface, is an eight-pound flathead catfish, gnawing futilely on Lee's thumbs, clearly disgruntled. A homelier sight would be hard to imagine.

"CATFISH are the redheaded step-children of America's rivers," Keith Sutton likes to say. "A lot of people think they're above catching them." My brother-in-law George, who will fish for anything that swims, goes even further. Fish, he says, embody our social stereotypes. Haughty, neurotic, and beautiful, trout are natural aristocrats. Large-mouth bass, omnipresent and resilient, are the river's working class. Catfish, in this view, are true bottom-dwellers (though George says that gar, moon-eye, and paddlefish are even lower -- piscine untouchables). It's an arbitrary ranking, based more on a fish's looks and personal habits than on its fighting ability and how it tastes, but such a ranking can change the course of a river.

In the late 1980s the Army Corps of Engineers finally woke up to the untidy state of the Mississippi Delta. Twelve miles of the Yalobusha River, they announced, would be cleared, dredged, and snagged. "They said it would have no significant impact on the fish," Don Jackson remembers. "I guess they didn't think anybody would care enough to check." Jackson, then a newly appointed professor of fisheries and wildlife at Mississippi State University, decided to see for himself. Even the muddiest reaches on the Yalobusha, he found, were alive with flatheads, channel cats, carp, and smallmouth buffalo. But some of his colleagues were less than impressed. That's just fine, they told him, but what about real fish?

Jackson and the Mississippi Wildlife Federation eventually forced the corps to scale back its plans. But most fishermen never bothered to get involved. It wasn't that they didn't care for catfish: according to the last national survey, nine million Americans catch catfish -- fewer than fish for bass and crappie but more than fish for trout. "But the people running trotlines and grabbling are kind of backwoodsy," Jackson says. "They can lose things that are very important to them and they still don't speak out." There is no environmental organization named Catfish Unlimited, no catfish-ecology chat group on the World Wide Web. Catch-and-release, an ecoreligion of sorts among fly-fishermen, is practiced by only one in fifty catfish fishermen.

To born-again fly-fishermen, some of whom write laws for state fish and wildlife departments, noodlers rank even lower than paddlefish. Not only do noodlers kill their fish, but they grab them at their most vulnerable moments, sometimes leaving thousands of eggs behind to be eaten by predators. The fact is, however, that noodling poses little threat to the environment. A single catfish can lay enough eggs to repopulate a stream reach. Besides, noodling is just too unpleasant to become very popular. "I can't tell you how tough it was," says Jay Francis, whose 1,300 noodles had less effect on catfish stocks than did the weather. "Some of those fish were just incredibly, incredibly vicious." If noodling is legal in only seven states, the reason has less to do with the environment than with ethics -- and ethics of a perversely genteel sort. In the words of one ichthyologist in Missouri, "It's just not a sporting thing to do."

STUMBLING across another muddy inlet, I have a hard time feeling sorry for the fish. In my right hand I'm holding a rope threaded through the gills of Lee's three catches, who swim along behind me like puppies on a leash. Blue cats have the worst bite, Lee says ("The difference between them and flatheads is like the difference between pit bulls and poodles"), but these flatheads look plenty tough to me.

A few feet from shore the waves break across low blue-black humps, glistening beneath the water like a school of eerie, robotic fish. Two years ago Lee made these catfish dens out of sawed-up oil barrels. They were meant to be fully submerged, but the same drought that has been withering wheat crops in the Oklahoma panhandle keeps exposing these drums to the sun, forcing Lee to move them every few weeks. Wading over to one of them, I see that Lee is struggling to pin something against its inside wall.

"Owwwww! That damn fish bit me!"

"Have you got him?"

"Not this one, that one! The one on your line!"

I glance down at my aquatic puppies. One of them has managed to dodge through my legs, sneak up on Lee, and chomp on his big toe. A bold feat, though hardly sporting.

"Hold on a second -- just hold on."

By now Lee's eyes flash signals as clearly as a lighthouse: he has found a big one. In a beat I'm crouched next to him, arms tangled with his inside the den, hands splay-fingered to stop the fish's charge. Somewhere inside, a fish is caroming off the sides of the barrel, ringing it like a muffled gong. And I realize with a shudder that my fingers are waving frantically, almost eager for a bite.

"He's on your side," Lee shouts. "Can't you feel him?"

No. But how could I miss such a huge fish? A twitch of my right hand solves the conundrum: I can't feel the fish, it seems, because my arm is all the way down its throat. The fish and I realize this at about the same time -- like stooges backing into each other in a haunted house. The fish clamps down, I try to yank free, and the rest is a wet blur of thrashing, screaming, and grasping. At some point Lee threads a rope through its gills, and for just a second I get a good look at an enormous, prehistoric face. Then, with a jerk of its shoulders, it wrenches free of my hand, taking along a few pieces of my thumb.

Later, coasting toward our dock in the dying light, Lee guesses that our catch weighs twenty-five pounds. Out of its element, though, it looks sadly diminished: prostrate on the deck, mouth working to get air, skin as soft and pale as dough. At first the kids scream when the boat hits a wave and the fish slides toward them, mouth agape. Then the shock wears off, and their voices turn mocking, exaggerated. Finally one of them gives it a kick: just another monster done in by daylight.

But not entirely. That night, when I come home from the lake, my son pads down the hall to greet me. He's been hearing bedtime stories about catfish all week -- stories not so different, I'll admit, from my mom's macabre tales. Now he looks up with anxious eyes as I tell him about my day. And I feel a twinge of recognition, watching his face contort with the effort of imagining. The troll, I think, has found a new haunt.

Photograph: Garold Sneegas

The Atlantic Monthly; February, 1997; In the Monster's Maw; Volume 279, No. 2; pages 92-96.