Lincoln Sadler eyes one of his favorite fishing spots, Great Rock, from a distance, but times his approach around an oncoming boat so as not to reveal the rock’s secret location. He has already hiked two miles in the boiling heat of an August North Carolina day followed by two miles of swimming and wading in the Pee Dee River.
Lincoln can wait a moment longer.
He reaches below the water and extends his arm into a dark cavern under the boulder. Enthusiastically wiggling his fingers in a dark underwater hole, Lincoln hopes a catfish bites him. Once Lincoln’s fingers are in the catfish’s mouth, he jerks the beast to the surface.
Near the Arkansas-Oklahoma border where I’m from, we call this noodling. In the Carolinas, the term is hand grabbling. Either way, it ends in a Greco-Roman grappling match where noodlers across the South, like Lincoln, wrestle very large catfish from their underwater holes. But this fishing story started long before Lincoln Sadler began his pilgrimage to Great Rock that August morning.
In the Beginning
Fifty million years ago, when bats, rodents, and elephants were also getting their start, large catfish species began diverging from their smaller brethren. Today, of the 49 catfish species in North America, 34 would not stretch across a dinner plate. Those 7 species of catfish prized by noodlers are the blue and channel catfish, and the flatheads. The latter can reach lengths of five and half feet. Work by Michael and Lotta Harman suggest these three species originated 35-40 million years after the original split between the large and small catfish, making them among the oldest of living catfishes.
Fast forward 11-15 million years and Lincoln is catching his largest catfish, 60 pounds, at Lost Rock, another of his secret locations on the Pee Dee. Lincoln’s prize catch is just 3.2 ounces light of the record largest catfish taken by Chad Lamb a few years later during the famous Okie Noodling Tournament.
Serving as human bait and wrestling catfish in the murky waters of the South may not seem efficient, but one study found that noodlers in the Tallahatchie River average catches of catfish 2.5 feet in length, nearly double that of traditional anglers. Ironically, if not for Lincoln and other noodlers, large size in catfish would prevent them from becoming dinner for a would-be predator.
In 1973, Jerry T. Krummrich, a masters student at Southern Illinois, investigated this by stocking experimental ponds with channel catfish and their predator, large-mouth bass. Krummrich determined that a channel cat must be 7-8 inches in length to avoid predation. Thus, the 49 species of catfish smaller than this would face tough times in many waters. This may be why the largest species of catfish also have the largest natural geographic ranges. The blue catfish is found from South Dakota to southern Mexico, the channel catfish from Mexico City to Manitoba, and the flathead from Mexico City to Minnesota. Compare this to one of the smallest catfish, the Ozark Matdom, measuring just over 4 inches in length. This catfish is found, as the name would suggest, exclusively in the Ozark Mountains.
There may be another reason why large catfish are geographically dispersed. Large fishes produce large clutches of eggs. While eventually yielding more offspring to geographically scatter, these large egg masses also attract predators. To protect against this, female catfish spawn in sheltered hollows with small entrances. Big underwater hollows with small openings, ideal nurseries for large catfish, are also favored by Lincoln and other noodlers. As with size itself, what would be typically evolutionarily favorable for a large catfish also makes it an easy target for a fish fry by noodlers.
You Are (Smarter Than) What You Eat
A twist of fate also produced another disadvantage for catfish. Along the Pee Dee River, Lincoln has identified a dozen rocks that are ideal for noodling. Among noodlers from the Carolinas to Oklahoma, these spots remain heavily guarded secrets. No flags or markers identify the rocks on the Pee Dee, just names, like Lost Rock and Great Rock, stored in the brains of Lincoln and his cohort.
Our large brains, that very trait that allows assessing habitat preferences for catfish or remembering locations of rocks along a river, require special nutrition. Specifically for our brain development, we need a significant amount of long-chain polyunsaturated lipids. Dr. Leigh Broadhurst does not believe it is coincidence that 3 million years ago our ancient ancestors arose in the East African Rift Valley, an area with many enormous lakes ripe with fish rich in these specific lipids.
David Braun and others found the earliest definitive evidence of this idea, a 1.95 million year old fossil site in East Turkana, Kenya, containing the butchered remains of aquatic animals. Today, fishermen benefit and catfish suffer from our million-year-old affinity for the fish course.
Increased brain size allowed not only for the development of memory and learning, but more complex communication and social interactions — and noodling is not a solitary recreational activity. As Lincoln states, “I never go by myself. Three is a minimum. If I get my arm caught in a hole, I need one person to run for help, and one person to hold my other hand.”
Sometimes, Lincoln’s group can swell to 17 people, including his brother and another Carolina noodling legend, Terry Sharp, who introduced Lincoln to noodling in 1998. Experience and social groups are key for noodlers and fishing success. For a masters thesis, Susan Baker of Mississippi State University surveyed hundreds of anglers throughout the South and found that noodlers formed stronger social connections and possessed more angling experience than traditional anglers.
But a noodler needs more than keen intellect and trustworthy friends. A noodler needs sheer bravado. Lincoln says that only about 1 in 30 men he takes out will stick their whole arm in a dark underwater hole. “They don’t cowboy up and just alligator arm it,” he says. In other words, many are too tentative, reaching in a short distance, their arms mimicking the short, squatty arms of alligators. So perhaps it's not shocking that a study found noodling is tied to masculine identity among Missouri noodlers. If, as Dr. Meghan Provost has shown, fertile women have a strong preference for men who strut in a masculine manner, imagine what landing a 100-pound catfish does for your image.
Is This Legal?
Wrestling a giant catfish to impress your friends, attract females, or simply for a large fish fry is not without controversy. Noodling is legal in just five states. In Texas, noodling is currently illegal but a bill to change this was approved by the Texas senate and house last summer. Why would noodling be illegal compared to other forms of angling? Fisheries and biologists voice concerns about the possible negative impacts on catfish populations, because noodling season in Mississippi specifically coincides with catfish spawning in the summer. Nevertheless, research indicates noodling does not negatively impact catfish populations in Mississippi or in Oklahoma due to limited success of noodlers in muddy waters and rapid currents.
And there's another reason why there may be no impact. Ultimately, few people want to “cowboy up” and shove their hands into the mouths of giant catfish.
Dr. Craig McClain is an expert on the science of body size in animals. His work has been featured in Miller-McCune, Cosmos, Science Illustrated, Wired, io9, and American Scientist. He is currently the assistant director of the National Science Foundation’s National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, North Carolina.