noodling [ noo.dling ] (verb)
- A slightly deranged person holds their breath, submerges themselves under water, shoves their entire arm into a muddy hole, and then uses their hand as bait in order to lure a giant catfish into biting them so they can yank it to the surface.
- Fishing with your bare hands.
Only a psychotic person would go noodling. I’m not sure what that means for my friend Alex Zedra and me, because we immediately accepted an invite from the legendary Hannah Barron for a weekend covered in blood and catfish slime. Psychotic or not, we were in without hesitation.
A little backstory: Alex is a gun-toting, foul-mouthed bro chick who just so happens to be the real-life human that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare modeled their “Mara” character after. Hannah is a hunting and fishing enthusiast with a sweet Southern drawl and nerves of steel that could put any grown-ass man to shame. With her infamous phrase, “GET BIT,” noodling is her specialty. Alongside her father, Jeff Barron, she has gained a massive following on social media for being a bonafide badass and a master of the art of noodling.
I’ve watched Hannah pull fish bigger than she is out of muddy lake beds for years behind the safety of my phone screen, marveling at how exceptionally brave she is. I never thought I would be given the opportunity to prove to the world that I, too, am an insane person willing to let a prehistoric-looking creature munch on my whole hand.
The adventure started at the airport. I live in Texas, Hannah lives in Alabama, and Alex lives in South Carolina. COVID-19 has caused global cutbacks, delays, changes, and cancellations to flights, which would have left me stuck in the Atlanta airport for around seven hours waiting on my connecting flight. Luckily, Alex was driving to Alabama from South Carolina and Hartsfield International Airport was on the way. So I skipped my delayed final flight and hitched a ride with what I soon found out is the world’s worst driver. I’ve officially dubbed Alex’s truck “The White Knuckle Express” due to the death grip you get on the dash while she rides people’s asses and calls them “fuckers.”
As we pull up to the boat dock, it’s around 9 p.m. Hannah and her father, Jeff, greet us with hugs and tell us that we are going to pregame tomorrow’s noodling with a little night time bow fishing and beer.
“This is why nobody in my family wants to be my emergency contact person,” I tell them.
Jeff is the kind of guy you immediately like; he’s got a laugh that’s contagious and keeps a steady flow of Busch Light coming. Hannah shows us the basics of bow fishing, and we hit the water with bows and beers in tow. As we take the boat out on the water, we kick back, listen to some country music, and take shots at carp and gar. By the end of the night, Alex had shot the only fish (a decent-sized gar), so we decided that I was going to be the first one to noodle in the morning. We rack out around midnight with anticipation of what was to come the next day.
We were all up ass-early and headed two hours away to an undisclosed location in order to meet up with a catfish noodling guru named Jap. We climbed into his boat while he proceeded to use a GPS device to locate catfish boxes he had sunk underneath the water. These boxes have been built out of wood and strategically placed around the lake bed in hopes that catfish will find them enticing enough to nest inside. Hannah explains to us that you will often find more than one catfish inside of a box due to them spawning. A female will lay her eggs inside, then a male will fertilize those eggs and proceed to drive the female out of the box so he can guard them. She also tells us about the two different kinds of catfish that we could encounter: a flathead and a blue. Most people exhibit hesitation when it comes to blue catfish because their teeth are sharper, they bite down harder, and they are way more aggressive than a flathead.
The first two boxes we check are empty, and I can feel my anxiety begin to build, like a calm before the storm. Jeff checks the third box just like the others, by sweeping through it with his hand and rattling a long stick around inside. He tells us there is a fish inside and that it’s BIG. We can all hear it thrashing against the walls from above the water, and it reverberates like thunder. It’s my time to shine.
I slide into the murky water reluctantly, worst-case scenarios running through my head — we did see a water moccasin casually swimming by at one point. The water is about chest deep, and the visibility is almost zero. Jeff tells me to put one of my feet inside the hole in the top of the box next to his, this way we can block it from escaping. They instruct me to hold my breath, dive down to the hole in the box, and use my entire right arm to sweep across the inside of it until (hopefully?) something bites the shit out of my hand. Awesome. And when that happens, I should slide my left hand down the side of the fish until I find its gill plate, shove it through the entire fish until my left hand meets with my right at its jaw, and then yank it to the surface.
My heart is pounding out of my chest and the reality of this situation really begins to settle in. My thoughts begin to race. Maybe I should have drank a beer to calm my nerves before doing this instead of shotgunning two whole cans of BRCC coffee — I AM TWEAKING! WHY AM I IN THIS MURKY-ASS WATER WITH MONSTER FISH!?!
I dive down. I grab Jeff’s foot inside the hole, immediately recoil, and come back up to the surface. “Okay. Definitely wasn’t in there far enough. Felt your foot though,” I say to Jeff. He cackles and reenacts me grabbing onto his foot while everyone has a good laugh.
“COME ON, YOU GOT THIS!” Alex yells from the boat.
I dive down again and shove my entire arm inside the box up to my shoulder. Nothing. It still won’t bite. I come back up for air, and Jeff decides to go under and investigate. It won’t bite him either. He dives down again. When he returns to the surface he informs me that apparently there were two in the box and the “little” one has escaped. The big one is still in there.
“How big?” I nervously ask him.
I can feel the whole box shaking around my feet. Jeff tells me he’s going to dive down once more with the stick and push the fish toward the front of the box. He will tap my leg when I should dive back down and grab the fish away from him. I anxiously laugh with Hannah as 13 long seconds pass, and Jeff finally taps me on the leg.
I fumble around under the water for a few seconds (holding my breath is not one of my skills) before both of us bring our heads above the surface. Now we both have our hands gripped around this fish’s powerful jaw, even though it’s not biting down on either one of us. I slide my left hand down the side of this massive fish until I find its gill plate. Hannah is coaching from right next to me, “PUT YOUR ARM ALL THE WAY THROUGH! PUT IT THROUGH!” After bringing my left arm through the gill plate all the way to my elbow, my hands interlock at its jaw. In one fell swoop, I yank it completely to the surface.
This gargantuan fish is beautiful! The adrenaline running through my veins is unrivaled to anything I have ever felt. She thrashes against me in an attempt to escape, but I keep her in a tight grip. My first fish is a gigantic female flathead!
“HOLY SHIT! OH MY GOD!!!” I scream as I laugh maniacally.
“WOOOO! HELL YEAH, BROTHER!” Alex screams from the boat.
We all throw our heads back and laugh like crazy people. Maybe psychotic isn’t too far off, after all.
Hannah helps me maneuver the fish onto my shoulder for some photos, and then we move her onto the boat to weigh her. Everyone starts taking a guess at how much they think she weighs. Hannah grabs the scale and hooks up the fish, “47.. 48.. 49..” she rattles off as the numbers continue rising.
“50 pounds!” Hannah calls out. “Took me four years to get one this big!”
This magnificent beast is much too large and old for us to want to eat it, so we take a few more photos and then release her back into the wild. As we watch her disappear beneath the opaque water I exclaim, “Alex is up!” and we are on to the next fishing hole.
Jeff and Hannah slide into the water to check the next box. Jeff informs us there’s another big fish inside that won’t bite (Jeff has been attempting to check their bite first to gauge whether it’s a flathead or a blue). “It’s easier when they just bite you right away,” Hannah explains. “Then you can just get in and get out quicker.” Alex puts her feet in the box next to Jeff’s, just as I had, and takes her first dive down.
She comes up shrieking, “FUCK, HE GOT OUT! HE’S SO SLIPPERY!”
“There may be another one …” Jeff says.
As he grabs the stick to check the box once more, it brushes up against Alex’s leg. She yells, “OH SHIT, WHAT WAS THAT!?!” After she’s done flailing and regains her composure, she laughs. “Sorry, I’m on edge!” It gives me a sense of relief to see that she is just as anxious as I was being chest-deep in murky water surrounded by unknown creatures with teeth.
“HE BITIN’ ME. HE BITIN’ ME,” I say, attempting to remain calm although there is a twinge of alarm to my voice.
After going under again, Jeff tells us that the big fish he felt initially is still inside — just like the previous box, only the little one escaped. Alex dives down again, sweeping her arm through the box, and emerges from the water, visibly frustrated. The fish still won’t bite.
“Man, I want y’all to actually get bit!” Hannah shouts.
After a couple more unsuccessful attempts, Jeff dives down and brings the fish to the front of the hole. Alex is finally able to work her hand into the fish’s mouth, next to Jeff’s. Hannah grabs the fish by its tail as Alex works her other hand through its gill plate. Alex pulls the fish to the surface and shouts, “TIGHT!” Everyone howls and hollers in unison. Alex snagged herself a 40-pound flathead.
Since Alex and I technically grabbed a fish (even though we didn’t get bit), it’s Hannah’s turn. At the next box, she doesn’t even break a sweat as she falls in place next to her father. Jeff checks the hole, only to have the fish aggressively bite into him, which means it’s a blue.
“You got that sleeve on your arm?” he asks.
“Yeah,” she says. “I’m gonna have to go under though to get my arm in him.”
She dives under the water and Jeff immediately exclaims, “OH! MERCY!” He can tell she got bit. Hard. After a few moments, both of Hannah’s legs kick back up out of the water before she flips right side up, pulling a giant blue catfish above the surface.
“He ain’t even got an eye!” Jeff yells.
The big fish is missing an eye on the right side of its head. At just this moment the blue thrashes against Hannah, flipping her around 360 degrees, and pulling her back under the water! As quick as she was pulled under, she’s back up again, the fish still on her arm.
To say that we were all impressed is the understatement of the year.
As per our rotation, I am once again up to bat. I can’t decide if I’m less nervous because I’ve now done this before or if I’m more nervous after watching Hannah get thrown around like one of those cowboys on a bucking bronco. I put my feet in the hole next to Jeff’s, dive under, and sweep my hand across the box, just like he taught me. The fish bites me moderately hard and then retreats!
“OH, IT BIT HER!” Jeff says above water.
I come up for air, somehow a little surprised.
“IT BIT YOU THEN!” Jeff says to me.
“HE DID!” I shout back, all of us laughing hysterically.
I dive back down only to realize that the fish has retreated to the back of the box and needs to be coaxed out. I dive down two more times unsuccessfully before Jeff and I start feeling around in the muck blindly with our hands, while our heads remain above the water. After what seems like forever, he strikes at my hand once and then twice.
“HE BITIN’ ME. HE BITIN’ ME,” I say, attempting to remain calm although there is a twinge of alarm to my voice. As he continues to bite down on my right hand, I slide my left hand down the fish until I find its gill plate and feed it through. I now have the fish stuck inside a loop that I made with my arms. I pull it to the surface, once more laughing maniacally, and raise the colossal fish up into the air.
“I get that same laugh, daggone serial killer laugh!” Hannah jokes. “YOU FINALLY GOT BIT!”
After removing the glove from my right hand, I can see that the fish tore through it and scraped up the back of my hand with its sandpaper teeth. Another monster fish, which we guessed was between 35 and 40 pounds but didn’t end up weighing.
Alex is up for another go, and she seems much more confident since her first round. After Jeff checks the box, Alex dives under for what couldn’t have been more than five seconds before bubbles start to rise to the surface. She launches herself out of the water in a panic.
“HOLY FUCKING SHIT!! THAT THING WENT TO TOWN ON MY ARM!”
“It might be — is it a blue?” Hannah asks, sounding almost concerned. Jeff laughs wholeheartedly; he thinks this mix up between catfish is hysterical. Alex holds up her arm to display bite marks running up her entire forearm.
“I WAS FIGHTING HIM, AND HE JUST HELD ON TO ME AND STARTED THRASHING ME AROUND!” She pauses a beat. “I can’t feel my hand. I am numb.”
Despite her wounds, Alex gears up for another go at the same fish. “Momma ain’t raise no bitch,” she declares and dives back under the water. She splashes back up to the surface after a few moments with the fish in tow. Although it’s biting down on her right hand, she doesn’t have a good grip on the gill plate, so the fish thrashes right out of her hands and swims away.
I may have got the biggest fish of the day, but Alex sure got the meanest.
Over the course of two days in Alabama, I got to witness firsthand Hannah and Jeff Barron noodling catfish as big as they come. We laughed until we cried, we bled (Jeff broke a finger and Hannah’s cousin might have to get his hand cut open and drained of fluid from a rather nasty bite), we ate fresh, fried catfish, and tested the limits of our courage. Sunburnt to hell, worn out, thrashed about, bloodied, bruised — and 10/10 would do it again. God bless Alabama. I can’t wait to go back.