Give that man a hand

Handfishers embrace bizarre sport's new-found legality

Hoyt resident Michael Corrigan is no stranger to the world of handfishing, otherwise known as noodling. Here he shows off the head of a 70-pound flathead he caught three years ago on the Red River in Oklahoma.

Catfish are repulsive creatures.

Sorry, but it’s true.

Just take a gander at the one on this page. Notice the eyes: beady, shifty. Check out the “whiskers,” the gaping maw.

And a picture doesn’t do justice to the catfish skin, which is equal parts pliable and slimy and such a color it would get its own name in the crayon box – should any demented soul be determined to color something such a sickly hue.

Then there are the barbs -three of ’em, one on top and one on each side. Some fish are protected by scales, but not catfish. No, the bottom feeders’ defense is more offensive: barbs it can flip up at will, catching a would-be predator or unwary fisherman by bloody surprise.

More than one river fisherman worth his weight in stinkbait has been opened up by one of the pricks from these nasty beasties.

But this story isn’t about catfish. It’s about catfishermen, and one subset of catfishermen in particular: the handfisher.

Eschewing rod, reel, boat and bait, the handfisher is practitioner of one of the oldest and certainly one of the most bizarre forms of sportfishing.

Handfishing – or, as it sometimes is called, noodling or grabbling or hogging or catfisting or tickling or dogging or stumping, all with or without the optional ending “g” – entails entering a flathead catfish’s domain, ferreting out his home, enticing him to open his mouth : then grabbing hold, hopefully wrestling the prehistoric-looking monster to the surface.

“It’s a good sport for families,” said Michael Corrigan of Hoyt, a longtime handfisher. “Even my daughter’s involved. It’s enjoyable. I grew up doing it. I love doing it. My whole family does it. Some people are into race cars; every weekend that’s all they can think about. We’re that way when it comes to handfishing.”

Entering the mainstream

Until recently, handfishing was strictly verboten in Kansas.

That’s not to say it wasn’t widely practiced.

Legal in a handful of states, handfishing was legalized just this past year, with a few restrictions.

The season, to coincide with the catfish spawn, ran June 15-Aug. 31. Handfishing was limited to the stretch of the Arkansas River from the John Mack Bridge on Broadway Street in Wichita downstream to the Kansas-Oklahoma border – noodlin’s legal in the Sooner State – and on the Kansas River from its origin to its confluence with the Missouri River.

Handfishers needed a special handfishing permit as well as a fishing license and were prohibited to use hooks, snorkeling or scuba gear or other man-made devices.

Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks sold 86 permits and is gathering a survey of permit holders.

“We’ve only got about a third of them back,” said Tom Mosher, fisheries research coordinator. “Of the one-third we got back, only about 25 fish were reported to have been harvested.”

Corrigan can claim three of them. He hauled in a 64-pounder, a 30-pounder and a 40-pounder in what he considers a bad year for the sport because of high water.

“I wanted to work the Lawrence dam, but the water was too high,” Corrigan said. “There are 100-pounders there, easy, but the water never got down. We got out seven times. If the water was down, we would have been out 30 days. But when the water’s too high, it’s too swift.”

Despite the conditions, Corrigan impressed upon his grabblin’ pals the need to buy a license.

“I stressed that to everybody,” he said. “It wasn’t really published. It was more word-of-mouth. But I told everybody to go out and buy a license to show their support.”

‘It is a redneck sport’

Why was handfishing illegal for so long, giving it – as Mosher put it – a “nefarious reputation?”

There are two schools of thought.

The first is that it’s thought to be detrimental to the catfish population.

To understand why, it’s important to understand how handfishing works.

Catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers or reservoirs. During the spawn, the female lays her eggs in the nest, and the male chases her away and guards the eggs.

A noodler goes underwater to find the catfish nest and feels along the hole until the fish, as a protective measure, swallows the fist – and the fight is on.

“There’s a concern it can be detrimental to nesting fish,” Mosher said. “The mortality is really high on eggs.”

The other strike against handfishing’s legality is more about mores and less about fish.

“There’s some question,” Mosher said, choosing his words carefully, “about the whole ambiance behind it. Is it sportsmanlike to catch a fish that way? It’s a question about whether or not that’s really how people really wanted to fish, whether that’s how we wanted society to be fishing.”

Corrigan has an answer for both points.

To the former, he points to a flathead’s voracious appetite. In certain conditions, Corrigan said, flatheads eat their weight every 72 hours. For a 100-pounder, that’s a lot of fish.

“It’s a proven fact, in places like Oklahoma, that it produces a lot more game fish. You don’t have all the big flatheads eating all the game fish,” Corrigan said. “I have a college degree in oceanography. I know what I’m talking about. They eat a lot of food, and they’re very aggressive. And they don’t like eating dead stuff.”

And what about the societal aspect?

Mosher wouldn’t come out and say it, but he was alluding to the sport’s, uh, rural reputation. It’s an appeal practitioners embrace. Want proof? Google “Girls Gone Grabblin'” to check out a video of women noodlin’ – insert joke here – in a takeoff of the risque “Girls Gone Wild” videos.

“It kind of is a redneck sport,” Corrigan says with a laugh. “If you go to the world championship handfishing championship, you see all these people with chewed-up arms, most of ’em are as redneck as you can get. I’m proud of it.”

Handfishing hand-me-downs

Corrigan learned to handfish from his uncle in Arkansas.

It’s a sport, he admits, that can be dangerous to the uninitiated.

“Anything’s dangerous,” he said. “I’d hate to be a race-car driver because I’m not used to driving that fast. To me, handfishing’s not dangerous. But one thing : everybody who does it respects the river. They know what their limits are.”

Corrigan’s closest calls – and worst scrapes – have come from critters other than cats.

A muskrat tore into a knuckle; a turtle bit his hand.

“Most of that stuff’s my own fault,” Corrigan said. “The muskrat : I was working a hole, and it was going up. The first thing you learn is, if the hole goes up, it doesn’t have a fish in it. I put my hand in there, and the muskrat bit me. If you work your hand in a hole and it’s not smooth – or polished, as we call it – get your hand out of there, because it could have a turtle laying down in it. If it goes up, there might be a muskrat or a snake up in there, up in the air pockets.”

Some grabblers have known to swim deep – down to 20 or so feet – under brush piles and the like in search of their prey.

Corrigan’s more conservative.

“I just work banks and stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t dive under brush piles. I don’t do that anymore. I just work banks, old car bodies. They like to lay up under there.”

And he’s cautious about where he handfishes.

“When I was in Louisiana two years, I’d talk about handfishing and they didn’t know what I was talking about,” Corrigan said. “They call it grabbling. But that makes me a little nervous. There are things in that water like alligators I don’t trust. That stretches me a little too much.”