Outfoxing Old Whiskers

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11351941813282.jpg’, ‘Photo provided by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Wayne Pence of Unslov, Iowa, displays a 23-pound flathead catfish he caught on a cane pole with 8-pound test line.’);

There are 27 species of catfish found in the United States, seven of which are common in the Midwest. Of these seven, the channel, black bullhead, yellow bullhead and flathead are the ones most familiar to local anglers. As the catfish is arguably the most sought-after fresh-water fish in this country, it follows that a variety of methods have evolved for outwitting them and bringing their succulent meat to the frying pan.

Over the many years I have been an avid fisherman, I have tried most of the recommended techniques for catfishing (with varying degrees of success) that have been handed down through the ages. I have used a cane pole, expensive rods and reels, trotlines, jug lines, but never the technique known as noodling or grabbing. The number of baits used is almost infinite and vary from worms, chicken livers, cut bait, crayfish, grasshoppers, minnows, artificial lures, and a wide assortment of commercially prepared concoctions usually called stink baits.

Most of my catfishing in earlier days was done in the rivers of north Texas, especially the Brazos about a mile below “Possum Kingdom” dam in the hill country west of Fort Worth. My favorite method at this location was the use of a 200-foot trotline with hooks placed every 3-feet.

Our routine would be to arrive at the bank of the river in the afternoon and canoe out to a sandbar in midstream. My colleagues and I would then seine several buckets of minnows and bait the trot line with them. Throughout the evening we would run the line about every hour, collecting our catch and rebaiting the hooks. By morning, we usually had a sizeable catch of channel catfish, some of which were cleaned, covered in cracker crumbs and fried in deep fat for breakfast. The remainder of the catch would be placed in coolers to be taken home for later use. Fresh channel catfish and newly-fried hush puppies, along with coffee strong enough to float a horseshoe, made for a meal one never forgets.

Jug lining was another method we used to catch cats. A dozen or so glass jugs (plastic milk containers were not available then) were used. Each jug had about a 3-foot line and hook attached to the handle. The hooks were baited, and the apparatus dumped into the river about a half mile upstream. Some time later, the jugs would float past the sandbar and would be retrieved. It was exciting to watch for the jugs floating down the river, and if they were moving erratically, we knew a fish was on line. It was no big deal if a few of the jugs were lost and did not make it down river where they could be retrieved.

Noodling or grabbing is an unusual method of catfishing, and, though I have never engaged in it myself, I have seen it accomplished several times by an old man who was half Comanche Indian. He had lived all of his life along the Brazos, and I remember we called him El Oso Pescador because he had the physical shape of a bear. He was an expert in the ways of the catfish and freely shared this knowledge with others.

Noodling requires one swim underwater and thrust an arm into recesses of the river bank. If a cat is lurking there, the noodler thrusts his hand into the fish’s mouth and grabs on to some portion of its anatomy and unceremoniously drags it from its lair. If the noodler is unlucky, a snapping turtle or water moccasin may be inhabiting the niche in the bank, and the noodler may receive a shot of venom from the snake or lose a few fingers to the turtle. (I recently saw a photo of a noodler in Arkansas holding a 250-pound catfish he had successfully extracted from its underwater grotto).

A good friend of mine is Wayne Pence of Onslov in eastern Iowa. Wayne is an avid outdoorsman, historian, and writer, and retired from the U.S. Air Force. He is a veteran catfisherman and recently sent me the following description of the method he most prefers for this type of fishing:

“I usually like to bait with crayfish or chubs in the fall. My style of fishing is at night when I can enjoy nature—coyotes howling, owls hooting, raccoons chattering, with the constellations up above. I use just a pole and light line, around 8 lb. test, which make it a more challenging and exciting experience. The ‘old fashioned’ pole and line method gives equal chance to both me and the fish.”

However one decides to match wits with Old Whiskers, or “the poor man’s trout” as the catfish is sometimes called, the time spent is well worth the effort.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2005, issue

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