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Catfish Noodling: Dangerous, Exciting, and Crazy Fun

If there’s a more heart-pounding method of fishing than noodling, please let me know!

A form of hand fishing that takes advantage of the spawning behavior of catfish, noodling is an adrenaline-packed contest between an angler and a (typically) big catfish. Controversial because of its potential impact on catfish reproduction, noodling has only been given the nod by 18 states.

It can also be quite dangerous, and numerous noodling-related deaths have been reported.

Hannah Barron Catfish Noodler

Hannah Barron is a famous noodler.

But where it’s legal, and when practiced with some safeguards, noodling is simply the most exciting way to catch catfish that you can imagine.


Noodling Takes Advantage of Catfish Spawning Behavior

As winter loosens its grip on the weather and water temperatures rise to near 70 degrees, male catfish stop hunting and start looking for a hole.

Catfish are what biologists call “cavity spawners.” Rather than finding a shallow, warm flat to create a nest, males of the big three species search out a hollow log, deep crevice, empty barrel, or some other enclosed space to tempt a female.

Catfish noodlers looking for nesting cavities

Noodlers need to look for nesting cavities.

When she arrives, he fertilizes the eggs she lays, and then he stays to watch over them, keeping them aerated with his pectoral fins and guarding them from potential predators. He won’t leave that nest until the free-swimming fry disperse, and depending on water temperatures, that can be as long as 10 days.

All the while, he will forgo food, but he will aggressively guard the next generation.

And that’s where noodling comes in.

A noodler will search the shallows for a good hole, close off potential exits, and try to determine whether they’re on a catfish--or something else that may be far less friendly.

To learn more about the catfish spawning behavior check out post where we discuss it in detail: The Catfish Spawn

Catfish Noodling is Controversial

Not all wildlife biologists are thrilled with this form of hand fishing.

Clearly, it takes advantage of the spawning behavior of male catfish, who won’t abandon their eggs without a fight. But keep in mind that disturbing, or worse yet taking, those males can lead to the death of that clutch, decimating reproduction.

As the Missouri Department of Conservation explains, “Catfish are very vulnerable during the nesting season (June and July) because they lay their eggs in natural cavities and then do not leave the nest. If they’re taken away, their eggs quickly die. Catfish on the nest are not vulnerable to being caught by traditional sport-angling methods.”

And that’s the crux of the issue: traditional fishing methods simply won’t catch those egg-guarding males and therefore don’t harm catfish reproduction. By contrast, noodling is a direct threat to the next generation of catfish.

Now, in some places, that’s probably not an issue. In much of the south, conditions are just ideal for catfish, and the next generation of channels, flatheads, and blues is all but guaranteed.

How to Noodle Catfish

Noodling isn’t rocket science.

Look for a muddy, murky shallow where catfish are known to make their home. The water shouldn’t be deeper than your stomach or so, as you’ll need to be able to fight a big, struggling catfish without drowning!

Skip a shirt to avoid snags.

More on that in a minute.

This process needs to be done with friends, and a good stick is all but essential. You and your fishing buddies need to use your hands, feet, and the stick to locate a potential nesting cavity.

When you’ve located one, the tricky part is figuring out whether a catfish has claimed it or if a beaver, snapping turtle, or alligator is calling it home. 

Getting this wrong is really bad.

Once you’re sure that a catfish is there, the noodler needs to reach into the nest, enticing the catfish to bite their hand. Grab hold of the catfish when it clamps down, pull it from the nest, and don’t let go!

That’s it!

Well, almost...

The Dangers of Catfish Noodling

Make no mistake about it; people can and do die while noodling.

The most likely danger is drowning. If the water is too deep, and if you don’t have a friend right there to help you out, a big catfish can keep you down far longer than you can hold your breath.

That’s why it’s critical to select shallow water and always noodle with a buddy or two.

Even then, noodlers have drowned when dams opened up, spilling tons of water into what was a shallow creek.

It’s also important to avoid getting snagged on underwater hazards. Going shirtless, or at least wearing nothing more than short sleeves, is a good idea. I’d recommend skipping watches, bracelets, or jewelry that can get caught, too.

Injuries for catfish noodling

Expect abrasions, bruises, and other superficial injuries.

And while some folks like gloves to protect their hands and fingers from the sandpaper-like mouths of catfish, snagging a glove deep in an underwater hole is a quick way to find yourself in real trouble.

Of course, in states like Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana, where alligators, venomous snakes, and snapping turtles are at least as numerous as big catfish, reaching into a hole to see who’s home doesn’t always end well.

Final Thoughts

Is noodling for you? 

We can’t say, but if it is, make sure it’s legal where you plan to fish and take every precaution to stay safe.

Because while there's no denying the excitement in hand fishing, there’s no way to dismiss the danger, either.

We hope this article has helped you learn more about noodling, and if it has, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
John Baltes
If it has fins, John has probably tried to catch it from a kayak. A native of Louisiana, he now lives in Sarajevo, where he's adjusting to life in the mountains. From the rivers of Bosnia to the coast of Croatia, you can find him fishing when he's not camping, hiking, or hunting.