WildThrive: How to noodle for catfish

With every outdoor sport comes a new challenge, and with each I find myself growing even closer to nature. This couldn’t be truer of my most recent experience: grabbing a catfish by the jaws with my own 2 hands.

Recently, my generous, redneck friends, Will and Michelle Brantley, gave me the opportunity to try my hand at noodling. We set out on a boat, in a creek off of Kentucky Lake. The object was to find a hole under water, stick my hand in and hope a catfish would bite me, and then pull it to shore or onto the boat.

Brita and Michelle check a shallow hole. They call this teamwork “synchronized noodling.” Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Brita and Michelle check a shallow hole. They call this teamwork “synchronized noodling.” Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Finding a hole

We started the process of looking for holes under water by feeling around with our feet. We were looking for holes big enough for 2 catfish to get inside where they can spawn. We checked holes that were near the edges of boat ramps, where concrete is poured. Catfish find these holes and use the space to lay eggs.

The first bite

I won’t deny that I was scared when it was time for me to reach into the hole. It took several long, deep breaths and convincing from the pros, before I finally did it. I stuck my hand in several holes over the course of 2 days, and was disappointed (and somewhat relieved) that nothing bit me.

By the time I got to the third day of trying, I was so ready for a catfish to bite me that I wasn’t even hesitant to stick my hand right in hole. I was thinking, “Please, please let this happen!” And finally, a catfish bit me! One of the experienced noodlers instantly named me, “The Happy Noodler,” because she said she’d never seen anyone so excited to get bitten. I worked on trying to grab that fish for a while, but it was in a fairly deep hole, and I couldn’t get a good grip on the fish. I was disappointed, to say the least.

The feeling of the bite was not what I expected. I guess I always assumed catfish would bite down and latch on. But, it’s quite the opposite. They definitely chomp down, but it’s very quick and then they back away. Catfish don’t want to eat you, they are just protecting their eggs. Because of this, you have to have the correct mindset and be prepared to grab them as quickly as they bite you.

Brita's first hand-caught fish. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Brita’s first hand-caught fish. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Successful grabs

We decided to try a shallower spot across the lake. I knew what to expect this time, so I quickly stuck my hand in, a catfish bit me, and I was prepared to get a nice grip on his jaw. I pinned him to the ground, stuck my head out of water for air, and then reached my other hand inside his mouth to get a better grip. Once I felt like I had a solid hold on him, my friends told me to go ahead and pull the fish out and they would grab its tail. The catfish cooperated, and I was able to get him to shore. This one was probably a 12-pounder, a decent size for a first timer to handle. I felt so rewarded for having tried so hard on so many holes with no luck. And finally, this one was mine!

At that same boat ramp, there was another, much larger hole. I stuck my hand in and pulled out a 40-pounder. When noodling a larger fish, put 1 of your hands through its gills and lock it with your other hands so that they can’t get away. If the hole is deep enough, you can wrap your legs around the fish to stop it from spinning, then let your spotters pull you to shore.

Brita and Michelle with Brita's second fish -- the 40-pounder. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Brita and Michelle with Brita’s second fish — the 40-pounder. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Cooking the fish

We kept the smaller fish because they have better tasting meat, and let the bigger ones go. Try my recipe for blackened, grilled catfish.

It is very important to treat the catfish with care. I noticed very quickly how the people I was with were so delicate and caring to the fish they captured. We only kept the ones we were going to eat.

Checklist of supplies

First, be sure you are in a state that allows noodling. It’s not legal everywhere. Then, be sure to get the following items:

  1. Fishing license — Check local laws to see what is required.
  2. Water shoes — I used old tennis shoes, but it’s best to avoid anything with strings or loops that can get caught.
  3. Garden gloves — You may think thicker is better, but thin gloves work best because you really need to be able to feel and use your hands to grab.
  4. Swimsuit — This sport isn’t glamorous. Be sure your suit fits well and you won’t be fidgeting with it all day. You’ll be in all kinds of awkward positions and getting in and out of the boat, so make sure it will stay in place.
  5. 4 to 5 foot long pole, with dull ceiling hook on the end — These are used to pull the catfish closer to the edge of deep holes so you can grab them. It is not like a fish hook, and is not intended to hurt the fish in any way. Disclaimer: be sure to check local laws, as hooks are not allowed in all states.
  6. Stringer — if you plan to keep the fish, you’ll definitely want to keep them on a stringer until right before you are ready to clean them.
  7. Boat – Although it’s technically not necessary, you’ll probably want to use a boat so that you can check several spots easily from water.
Team work is always great when noodling. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

Brita and Michelle work together to make sure Brita has proper hand placement on the catfish. Photo courtesy of Will Brantley

I have gone noodling again since my first time, and I tell you, the rush is almost as invigorating every single time. Every single hole brings a new challenge, excitement and fear of the unknown, and I simply can’t wait to get bitten again.


  • About Brita Lewis

    The youngest of three girls, Brita Lewis became her dad’s hunting buddy at the age of 9. She loved it. “I remember going to sit with him a lot and then one day realizing that I wanted to have my own weapon. I wanted the challenge.” This marketing strategist for Gray Loon in Evansville, Indiana, creates website and social media strategies for companies in the outdoor industry. She holds an MBA from the University of Southern Indiana and a BA in Marketing from Eastern Illinois University.