When a 60-pound prize fish is meandering down the river but your trusty fishin’ rod is back in the car, you have to take matters into your own hands. At least, that’s how Nate Williams won the 2015 Okie Noodling Tournament, a competition that challenges fishermen to catch massive catfish using only their bare hands.
Nate discovered noodling thanks to a childhood rafting adventure, a boyish dare and a 12-pound flathead catfish. And he’s damn good at it too—he’s featured on Animal Planet’s River Monsters, runs his own hand-fishing tours and has three sons that could teach Tom Sawyer a thing or two about catching a fish.
But noodling ain’t no shooting fish in a barrel. So we spoke to Nate just in time for the end of National Catfish Month to find out what it takes to handfish like a pro:
Bathroom Minutes: Exactly how do you reel in a fish with your hands?
Williams: Big flatheads have a large jawbone in the bottom of their mouth that feels like a suitcase handle. I grab it and firmly hold the fish against the bottom of the hole while I get my second hand on his outer gill. Once the body is mostly out of the hole, I wrap my legs around its lower body and lock my feet together. Keep in mind that the fish is thrashing, biting and rolling the whole time.
Nate helps Hamish and Andy catch a big one:
Bathroom Minutes: What’s the biggest fish you’ve ever pulled in?
Williams: Seventy-four pounds, which set the tournament record at the 2015 North Canadian Big Cats and BBQ Shootout. My son River caught a 54-pound flathead when he was five; the fish actually outweighed him by 14 pounds. River’s head and shoulders could have fit into the fish’s mouth.
Bathroom Minutes: When’s the best time to noodle?
Williams: Generally, catfish spawn when the water temperature is between 66 degrees and 84 degrees. In the South, this is anytime between May and August.
Bathroom Minutes: Where are the best noodling spots?
Williams: When you’re first starting, I would look for rock that’s partially submerged, but also visible above the surface of the water. That way, you can just feel where the sand meets the bottom of the rock until you find a hole.
Bathroom Minutes: Have you ever stuck your hand in a hole only to realize you’ve grabbed something other than a fish?
Williams: I’ve grabbed beavers, snapping turtles, gar, crawdads, frogs, snakes and even ducks.
Bathroom Minutes: What’s the scariest moment you’ve had on the river?
Williams: My buddy and I were noodling a wrecked boat that had submerged to the bottom of the river. I couldn’t reach the back of the boat myself, so we locked hands while I slid in. When I still couldn’t feel the back, I made the mistake of letting go of my partner’s hands. The boat ended up being empty, but my partner was gone when I swam back towards him. I tried finding the entrance but kept hitting solid wall. I put my feet on the ground and tried pushing the boat off of me, but it was stuck in the mud. Luckily, my foot found the entrance right as I was about to blackout. I made it the surface choking and spitting up water.
Bathroom Minutes: Would you ever go back to fishing with a hook and line?
Williams: Fishing with a pole can be rewarding too, and I still do it in the winter and spring months when I can’t get into the water. But you can fish your whole life with a pole and you very well may not catch a fish as big as noodlers do on an average day.