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Okie Noodling Oklahomans grab life by the gills

By Emilia Buchanan I

told my girls, ‘If I don’t come up, don’t come in the water after me. Just go home and get your mother.’”

Jerry Brownen’s two young girls took heed of their father’s words and quietly started back home. Finally, Brownen, who had found himself tangled up in a rusty car body beneath the water’s surface, emerged from the murky river. He was gasping for breath and wrestling with a fl athead catfi sh the size of a toddler. Brownen, 69, now a retired noodler, made a name

for himself in Gracemont, Okla. “I used to really enjoy it,” Brownen said. “I used

to take my girls with me, and I even taught my youngest how to noodle. I have quite a reputation in Gracemont; that’s where the majority of my noo- dling was. The doctor fi nally made me quit, though, because I got bit one too many times.”

An Okie Tradition “‘Noodling’ means going fi shing with nothing but

a stringer in your pocket, bare knuckles and bare hands,” said Cotton Electric Cooperative member Clarence “Scooter” Bivins. “You pull the fi sh out of its natural habitat using nothing but sheer grit—no use of hooks, tackle or anything like that. You just need a regular Oklahoma fi shing license. “‘Grabbling’ is what we were raised calling it,” Bivins continued. “I have also heard ‘grappling,’ like in wrestling. In Louisiana, it’s called hogging. And of course, there’s ‘noodling’ or ‘hand fi shing.’” Bivins, champion of the 2010 Okie Noodling tournament and star of History Channel’s television show, Mudcats, has been noodling since he was just 4 years old, catching his fi rst catfi sh at age 10. For him and Brownen, noodling dates back as far as they both can remember. “I remember going to Red River, hanging onto Dad’s back like my son, Nathan, does to me,” Bivins said. “Back then, we’d walk down to the river three or four miles in 100-degree heat; and if we caught a fi sh, we’d have to drag him back up the river or carry him back to the pickup. Walking four miles on that sand can get pretty gruesome.”

Noodling is a way of life for those who partake. Some enjoy the mere sport of it while others noodle to put food on the table for their families. Now legal in only 17 states in the United States, noodling is an ancient practice that far predates both Bivins and Brownen. “Noodling is a traditional Native American re-

source harvesting technique that was passed on to early settlers,” said Brad Beesley, creator of the 2001 documentary, Okie Noodling, and the man behind the Okie Noodling tournament held in Pauls Valley. “It has now evolved into an extreme sport, and its popularity has doubled because of Mudcats and Okie Noodling. “What’s attractive about the sport is that anyone can do it,” he added. “It’s a sport for all classes. It’s not expensive since you’re not buying rods or boats. All you need is your hands and some time.” Beesley, who now lives in Austin, Texas, did not

grow up noodling, but is proud to be a part of the Oklahoma Noodling scene. During the summer months, he makes the six-hour drive back to Okla- homa almost on a weekly basis just to get his hands on a fl athead. “I didn’t start noodling until 1999 when I began

fi lming the documentary, Okie Noodling,” he said. “We grew up in the outskirts of Moore, and Dad just took us out with rods and reels. But noodling is addicting. I love it.” The low cost, excitement and fairly recent public- ity of the sport make it an appealing feat for any ambitious individual to attempt; though opinions vary on whether noodling is a sport everyone should try. “What I like is that it’s a family-and-friend-orient-

ed sport,” Bivins said. “It’s a great way to spend the summer.”

Bivins and his family make an event out of most

every noodling catch. “We have fi sh fries and cook fi sh as often as we can,” he said. “We always have fi sh left to last us through winter. It’s a blessing.

“If someone is interested in noodling, they should

get after it,” Bivins added. “But you know, different strokes for different folks. Some would rather be on a golf course. There is a certain amount of pain, and

some bites really hurt. Some people don’t want to stick their hands where they can’t see them.” Canadian Valley Cooperative member Adrieane

Bowman is one participant who decided noodling just may not be her cup of tea. “With the right company, I may go again,” Bow- man said, “but for now, I think once was enough.” Bowman ventured out to the river with her

brother, Brian, one weekend out of boredom. “We were just sitting around in the living room one Saturday and decided to go fi shing,” she said. “But we didn’t have any equipment. Brian sug- gested we go noodling, but I didn’t have any grubby clothes. He tossed me an old T-shirt and pair of shorts, we went down to the Quick Way to get snacks and peroxide, and we went noodling!” Scared to death, Bowman braved the muddy water

to impress her brother. “I kept thinking, ‘This thing’s going to pull me

under; it’s going to scar my arm; I hope his bite marks don’t get infected.’ I was worried about snakes, but mainly, I wanted my brother to be proud.”

Though she likely won’t try noodling again, Bow- man said she thinks noodling is something everyone should try at least once. “That one afternoon is a story I can tell again and again,” Bowman said. “I felt like She-Ra catching that fi sh! The memory makes me happy. The catfi sh tasted so good that day. I think probably because I stuck my hand in its mouth.”

What to expect “Don’t take more fi sh than you need,” Brownen

said. “Noodling season is spawning season for cat- fi sh. Keep in mind, when you pull them out, it leaves their eggs vulnerable for other fi sh to eat. Anytime you feel eggs, hold on, because you are about to get the fi re bit out of you.” But as Beesley points out, getting bitten by the

fi sh is the name of the game. “When they start harvesting wheat is when catfi sh

lay their eggs. That’s when they’re nesting. They’re hyper aggressive; that’s why they bite. Any other time, they’d just swim away,” Beesley said.

Continued on Page 34 JUNE 2012 33

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