A question sky divers are always asked is why do you jump out of a perfectly good airplane? The same could be asked of catfish noodlers, a group that steps over a rod and reel to jump into the water and grab massive catfish from their underwater lair and haul them to the surface often just for fun.
Legal in Texas only since 2011, noodling or handfishing giant blue and flathead catfish is a long-held, if not previous illegal, tradition. Before legalization only a handful of fishermen took the plunge during the summer months to reach into holes under boat ramps and into old tree roots in search of fish that weighed 50 pounds of more. More often than not they did it by the protective light of the moon so as not to get caught.
Chandler’s Caleb Willhite was an impressionable 13-year-old when he was first introduced to noodling back in the dark days. He loved to catfish, but was never catching the big ones like one of his mentors would show him in pictures.
“It was on Lake Palestine. It was about 1 in the morning and he said if you want to catch a big catfish you have to go at night, I said all right I like night fishing. They didn’t tell me I was about to get off in the water,” the now 27-year-old recalled.
Not knowing anything about what was about to happen he followed the others over the side of the boat.
“We got off in the water and I kept hearing something that sounded like thunder and I couldn’t tell if it was about to rain or not, but it was that fish bumping under the water. They said all right there is one in there, come on under the water. I went under, put my hand in there and when it bit me I was back in the boat. I didn’t expect that is how we were supposed to catch big catfish. I didn’t know what happened, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out,” said Willhite, an oilfield hand by trade.
After one of the others pulled out a 20-pound fish and showed him what he had missed out on, Willhite was back in the water on the next opportunity and has been hooked since.
So have a lot of others become in the last six years as the sport has become legalized and moved to a daytime activity. Besides noodling for fun, tournaments have also popped up. Willhite and his partner, Blake Rodgers, have created a guide service, Texas Handfishing Charters and Guide Service, which stays busy during May until September seasons when the fish are catchable.
Depending on the lake and temperature handfishing is best during the catfishes’ spawning season. That is when the big fish move into secluded holes to spawn.
While most avid noodlers have their favorites and a number of community holes they visit time after time what fishermen are looking for is structure like a boat ramp, piled up concrete, under tree roots, inside hollowed logs or big fallen trees that have been on the lake bottom for years.
Willhite said once a fisherman has taken the plunge and finally comes up with a big fish they are hooked by the adrenaline rush.
“Anytime you have your eyes closed and reach into a hole, it is like the kids’ museum where they have those things where you reach down in and try to figure out what it is in there. It is the same thing, but for grownups,” he explained.
The goal is to reach into the hole as far as possible and then wait until you feel the fish take your hand.
“A big fish will sometime swallow you all the way up to your elbow, but it doesn’t hurt. It is like someone reaching out and shaking your hand real fast and then it is gone. If you don’t grab it real fast then you have missed it and the fish will swim to the back and won’t come back to the front,” Willhite explained.
However, that is the easy and safest part of the process. Getting the fish out of the hole and to the boat can be like an in-the-water rodeo.
“Once you get them out of the hole they will roll like an alligator. I have seen people get their fingers broke, wrist broke, hands broke. It is hard to hold on to them,” Willhite said.
Although Lake Palestine would be considered his home lake, Willhite has spread out to a number of lakes around East, North and Central Texas. He said he has found the bigger the lake the bigger the fish. The only reason he can figure is that they have more spots for the big cats to get into.
His best to date has been a 98-pound behemoth. Where it came from is a trade secret for fear of a run on the lake by other fishermen.
“It was like wrestling someone. We had to put a stringer in it, but it didn’t fight as hard as some of those little aggressive 30- and 40-pounders. It was real strong but didn’t spin like the smaller fish,” Willhite said.
It is not always the fish that can be dangerous. So can be the locations.
“There is one we call the coffin. It is a boat ramp. Sometimes we use hookah gear, which is like a form of scuba diving. We have a small oil-less air compressor and a regulator and we will swim back in there 10 or 12 feet beneath the concrete and will grab that big fish and turn around and swim it back out,” Willhite said.
He added that before making the dive you are dealing with swells sometimes up to five feet and have to realize that the concrete ramp broke up for some reason in the first place, and that you could easily be under its remains when it happens again.
Another danger can be reaching into a hole and taking a hook in the hand leftover by someone fishing with an illegal rig used to snag catfish. The scare can be if the hook is tied to line that has become wrapped around something making it where the fisherman cannot make it quickly back to the surface.
In a year when fishing is really good Willhite said you might catch 40 to 50 blue and flathead catfish in a day. The average is going to be about 25 per day.
Willhite said the first two years that handfishing was legal he seldom saw another boat on the water he could identify as another noodler. That has changed since.
“Now no matter where you go you are going to see a boat, someone pulls up on you, see somebody else noodling or they will be in your spot. You will see five or 10 boats a day out there noodling. That is any day of the week,” he said.
And while the fisherman does not mind the competition he is concerned about the amount of harvest. He said he has already seen a decline in the number of super cats on Lake Palestine, which he attributes to too many keeping their five-fish daily limit instead of practicing catch and release.
“It is like big bass. If you went out every day and got to catch a 13 pound bass out of a lake, and you know you are going to go out every day and catch a bass over 10 pounds, and just keep them every day, people don’t like that. Eventually you are going to hurt the fishery and that is what these people are doing keeping these 40-, 50-, 60-pound fish every day,” Willhite said.
Because of the publicity noodling has received from online videos, stories and television Willhite and Rodgers have people standing in line from throughout the state to go. Some now book three and four trips a season.
Most have to first get their toes wet a little before going for the swim.
“They are real hesitant at first so you have to ease them in. You can’t take them to a spot first where you are going to catch a monster fish and say, ‘Hey you are going to reach your hand in here and catch a 60-pound fish that is probably going to break your hand’. You don’t want to start them off with that. Start them with something smaller and they want something bigger as they get going,” he said.
For more information on fishing with Texas Handfishing Charters and Guide Service call 214-980-4944.
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