Texas Living

Noodling for Catfish in Texas’ Lakes

By Peter Simek 8.13.18

Noodling for catfish — sometimes called “hillbilly handfishing” — has a long, cherished tradition in Texas, particularly in the lakes, rivers, and bayous of East Texas. But until 2011, the sport that involves baiting and catching catfish by hand was illegal.

“No one knows why it was illegal,” Houston Rep. Gary Elkins told Texas Monthly at the time. Elkins cosponsored a bill that legalized the sport, opening the door for avid practitioners of the peculiar and sometimes dangerous forays into Texas’ murky river bottoms.

What Is Noodling?

Noodling may be the oldest form of fishing in Texas. Noodlers catch catfish by getting in the water, luring the fish out of their underwater nests, and letting the catfish bite their hands.

Flathead catfish (the favored prey) are a particularly aggressive fish, and so they tend to bite anything they perceive as a threat. Once a fish snaps, the hand-fisher grabs its jaw and yanks it out of the water.

Where to Watch Noodling

That veiled element of danger and the spectacle of tearing a fish out of the water with one’s bare hands have made noodling something of a macho extreme sport that fascinates onlookers and has inspired a number of TV shows and even a documentary.

There are also competitions springing up, which can serve as a spectator sport.

How to Noodle

Although it may look easy to an outsider, noodling can be difficult — and dangerous. Noodlers find catfish in hollowed-out holes underneath the bank of a river or lake, where they nest to lay their eggs. That means the fish inside them are the larger and more prized females, and they are defending their young, which makes them aggressive.

Depending on how deep the water is, noodlers may either reach in or submerge their whole body to get a hand close enough to the opening of the nest.

Dangers of Noodling

The sight of a human hand may be enough to provoke the catfish, but noodlers also use their fingers to entice the angry fish. Once they get a bite, they grab hold of the catfish’s enormous lower jaw, which some noodlers have described as feeling like a suitcase handle. Then they hold tight and yank.

Another dangerous element of noodling: Catfish aren’t the only Texas critters that like hanging out in the muddy, boggy bottoms of our lakes and streams. Noodlers looking for a catfish to latch onto their arms have sometimes been bitten by snapping turtles and water moccasins instead.

For a friendlier guide to Texas’ waters, visit Texas’ best lakes or learn about Eagles front man Don Henley’s battle to save Caddo Lake.

© 2018 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance