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Coming to grips with noodling's rising popularity

By now, anyone with cable television has at least seen promos of people wading muddy water up to their necks and catching catfish by hand.

"Noodling," as it is called, seems to be more popular than ever.

This week, an interepid individual named Kaleb Summers won the big-fish title at the annual Okie Noodling Championship by hauling a 70.46-pound flathead out of Oklahoma's oddly named Northeast Oklahoma River.

In an interview with a Tulsa World reporter, Summers said he had to dive back into a 5-feet-by-6-feet underwater cavern to grapple with the monster.

Now I like fishing for catfish as much as the next guy, but I simply don't understand the appeal of hand-to-mouth underwater combat with big, strong, ticked-off fish armed with venomous spines in their pectoral and dorsal fins.

Obviously I'm a fuddy-duddy, a stick-in-the-mud, a weenie and a wuss.

At least that's what the millions of Americans who watch the "Mudcats" cable TV show would probably think. During its spring 2012 run on the History Channel, the show consistently ranked as the second- or third highest-rated show on cable. TV viewers apparently like to watch people wrestle catfish.

Then again, TV viewers often enjoy watching others do things they can't - or won't - do themselves.

Hovering near the rail of a Bering Sea crab boat in subzero weather as 30-foot waves crash over the deck seems almost insane, but the Discovery Channel's "Deadliest Catch" consistently enjoys huge ratings.

Placing oneself directly in the path of an onrushing tornado flirts disaster, and perhaps for that reason alone Discovery's "Storm Chasers" draws such large audiences.

I like those shows, too, perhaps because the protagonists have a true purpose.

The crab fishermen in "Deadliest Catch" are trying to make a living in one of Earth's most hostile environments. The twister aficionados in "Storm Chasers" collect data that will help weather experts better predict tornado activity.

Noodlers - well, they're just out having fun.

Risking death or injury just for the heck of it seems a mite foolish to me.

I think my aversion harks back to a magazine article I read years ago. The writer had decided to try his hand at "trout tickling," a practice quite similar to catfish noodling.

The writer described lying on his stomach on a bed of meadow grass, his arm immersed in the cold waters of a western trout stream, probing an undercut bank for any touch or movement that would signal the presence of a trout.

When finally he felt something move against his hand, he grabbed for it - and yowled with pain as he pulled out a muskrat with its teeth firmly embedded in the meat of his hand.

In southern states, the epicenter of catfish-noodling territory, the hazards seem even greater. The water is muddy and affords near-zero visibility. Water moccasins lurk in many of the same places as catfish. So do toothy garfish. And in some parts of the South, so do alligators.

Somewhere in its extensive data banks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention probably has statistics that show catfish noodling is less dangerous than, say, skydiving or rock climbing.

Still, the thought of sticking my arm under a sunken stump and sticking my hand into the mouth of a fish as large as my leg gives me the willies.

I respect those who enjoy noodling. I think they're a little whacked, but they've certainly got guts. And they've got their mantra:

"What could possibly go wrong?"


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