Take Me to the River
Noodling 101 with filmmaker Bradley Beesley
"To make a good noodler, it takes somebody's got balls. Not necessarily men – I mean even women." –Handfisherman Lee McFarlin in Okie Noodling II
When Bradley Beesley's hugely popular documentary Okie Noodling was released in 2001, the folk sport of catfish noodling (also known as handfishing or grabbling) was illegal in all but four states. In the almost 10 years that have since passed –and due at least in part to exposure from Beesley's film and the annual tournament he founded (now frequented by the likes of ESPN and the Food Network) – noodling is now legal in 13 states.
Texas is not one of those states.
But that didn't stop Beesley from proposing a tutorial in noodling, which is why we're trundling down Highway 71 West toward the San Saba River in search of flatheads. Beesley not too long ago premiered Okie Noodling II at the Marfa Film Festival (the film will play July 7 at the Alamo Ritz on a double bill with Summercamp!, Beesley's 2006 documentary made with Sarah Price). The sequel retains the original's spry step and sly sense of humor, aided by animated interstitials by Louisiana Kreutz, Beesley's producer and editor. It reconnects with noodlers from part one, as well as details both the increased popularity of the sport and one Missourian's crusade for legalization.
Noodlers seem to fall into two camps:those who want noodling to broaden from fringe sport and those who want to preserve it as folk tradition. Beesley doesn't think noodling will ever legitimize – and corporatize – in the manner of, say, a Bassmasters. "Because you can't sell anything for noodling, that's never gonna happen," he says. "Plus, there's just not enough guys who are willing to stick their hand in a hole and get bitten by a giant catfish."
And that, I quickly learn, is a neat summation of noodling: the wading through chest-deep water, sweeping for holes, and sticking a stick, leg, or arm into said hole in the hopes that a nesting catfish will take the bait ... the bait being you, of course.
Beesley initially approached noodling solely as a filmmaker, one resistant to actually trying his hand at the sport: "I was scared to death. I didn't want to try it." But by the end of his first day on the river, "I was in love with the sport," he says. Since then, he's fished countless times, with the best of the best, and toughened up in the process.
"I have graduated," he says. "I don't use gloves anymore."
Did you bring some for me?
Turns out for most, it's the bite that brings them back –the anticipation of the adrenaline rush that one noodler in ONII likens to a junkie hunting for his next hit. "I don't even care if I catch the fish," says Beesley. "I certainly don't care if I keep the fish. But actually getting bit by the fish is why I go."
So what does it actually feel like?
"I don't know why ..." Beesley starts. "I think maybe I have a low tolerance for pain ..."
You're not really selling this.
"But I scream more than anyone I've ever gone handfishing with."
"And I yelp, and I make high-pitched noises. I giggle, and I laugh."
"I giggle a lot."
Nervous laughter – my own – is something I get to know intimately during our day on the river – and no, not because I'm conducting an interview in my swimsuit. (Another first: peeing, repeatedly, whilst conducting an interview. Do not judge.) Nope, the nervousness – nay, terror – springs entirely from the process, in its brazen defiance of everything my parents have taught me about caution and not putting my hands into dark places.
Then a snake cruises by with a catfish in its jaws, and Beesley feels the brush of whiskers in a hole. Suddenly, quite remarkably, I realize: I want this. I want to know what it's like to get bitten by a catfish, and I want it bad.
Yeah, it didn't happen. Four hours in the water, and only the snake went home sated. Still, I understood at least a little what makes noodling so intoxicating: the quiet of the river, the companionship, the singular purpose.
But this is a fish story. Let's try this again:
Yeah, I caught a fish. Did I bring a camera? Nah. But you should've seen it. It was this big.
No, wait – this big.
Okie Noodling II screens at 7:30pm on Monday, July 7, followed by Summercamp! at 10pm, at the Alamo Ritz (320 E. Sixth). Filmmaker Bradley Beesley will be in attendance at both screenings. The 2008 Okie Noodling Tournament takes place July 12 at Bob's Pig Shop in Pauls Valley, Okla. For more information, visit www.okienoodling.com/tournament.