Whiskers in the Water

What if I were a catfish, mama?
I said, swimmin’ deep down in, deep blue sea
Have these gals now, sweet mama, settin’ out
Settin’ out hooks for, for me, settin’ out hook for, for me
“Catfish Blues” (1941) Robert Petway

Brightly colored fishing piers dot the shore of the man-made ponds at Lewis Emery park where, on bright summer days, locals bring their rods, reels, and small hooks to catch some of the hordes of bluegill that swarm in the shallows.

Though most of the fish that populate the ponds are crappies and bluegill scarcely reach three inches in length, largemouth bass lurk in the shadow of the fishing piers in the late afternoon as the sun brings the shallow pools to a simmer.

Confident in my fishing prowess and armed with what angling gear I had gathered from my parent’s garage and my own kitchen—a deep-sea rod I had purchased for $20 from a sidewalk sale in the Florida keys, a butter knife, a small tackle wheel, and a packet of old hot dogs from a camping trip I had taken three weeks previous—I resolved to become, if only for the afternoon, the silent, patient zen-master of Lewis Emery Park.

The bluegill descended like locusts. They came at each rotting bit of hot dog before my bobber even hit the water. And because my hook was too large, I was more or less serving them a giant leg of mutton that they could bite into without reaching the bone. Though it frustrated me that I had to rebait every minute or so, the real vexation came from the clarity and shallowness of the water near the pier. I could see each finger-long predator hit the bait and swim away, showing its prize to his comrades by holding it in his mouth for a moment before swallowing, leaving only my hook glinting in the sunlight.

After this vexation, a cloud drifted over my fishing pier and suddenly the bluegill dissipated. Then, a large, dark mass emerged from the depths below the pier flipping its tail back and forth through the water. “Catfish!” I shouted. With my hook bereft of any decomposing pork by-product, my fishing partner pushed me aside, dropped in her line, and tried to position her hook directly in front of the fish, which seemed like a shark in comparison to the size of our quarry up to this point.

When the catfish opened its cavernous mouth, the vacuum pulled the bait and the hook deep into its throat as water drained from its gills. My fishing partner, losing sight of her bait, began to pull up her rod and felt the heft of the wriggling monster as it bent the tip toward the water.

On the pier, the catfish’s body inflated as it let out high-pitched grunts, hampered by the hook lodged deep within its throat. Water droplets traveled down its barbels and left dark stains on the pier. The scaleless skin of the fish was cool against my fingers as I held it down to try to retrieve the hook that it had devoured so hungrily. It was too deep. I came ill-prepared without pliers. I cut the line with the butter knife and tossed it back as I muttered a short silent prayer for its health.

More than one-tenth of the world’s fish are catfish of the order Siluriformes. The most striking physical characteristics of the catfish are the set of barbells that protrude from the head of the fish. These contain taste buds and help catfish, which are usually bottom-dwellers, find food in murky water. It is because of these barbels, which some think resemble whiskers, that they are named after the felines to which they bear little other resemblance. They often seem to act the exact opposite of a cat. For example, catfish bark instead of hiss, they bite instead of scratch, and they love being wet. I find the name unfortunate.

Because the name blankets a group of 3,093 species, it is hard to say much definitive about them other than that they all have barbels. Most catfish are scaleless and have both dorsal and pectoral fins with a spine along the dorsal fin that is venomous in some species. They range in size from a fish small enough to lose in a fish tank to the Mekong Giant Catfish, perhaps the world’s largest freshwater fish, which tops out at over 9 feet long and 650 pounds.

Most catfish are solitary bottom dwellers who eat invertebrates and vegetation. However, rare instances and myths have made certain species of catfish out to be man-eaters. The European wels catfish can grow to over 10 feet long, and there are stories of monstrous fish exceeding 16 feet in length. Stories of man-eating wels catfish date back to the 15th century, and in 2008, a specimen was caught in Russia with human remains in its stomach. In 2015, a massive 280 pound wels catfish, large enough to swallow a whole human, was caught in Po Delta, Italy by Dario and Dino Ferrari. Even with today’s large commercial fishing culture, the monsters still lurk in the depths.

Likewise, in the Kali River of India, local religious ceremonies burn dead bodies on wooden platforms in the river and offer a nonstop food supply for the Goonch Catfish. These fish, which can weigh over 450 pounds and reach lengths of over 8 feet, have been rumored to drag swimmers under the water and devour them just like the burnt human remains.

The Amazonian Piraiba, which can grow to 10 feet in length, has also had its run-ins with humans. In the early 1990s, three men were fishing in the Amazon when their net got caught on a rock and one of the fisherman dove into the river to free the net. When the net floated to the surface a moment later, it was empty. No bubbles appeared. The men began their search for their friend.

After a few hours passed, a huge Piraiba catfish came to the surface and was thrashing about with only the fisherman’s legs sticking out of its mouth. This catfish had swallowed a fully grown man up to his legs.The two fisherman jumped into the water and wrestled the catfish into the boat. Then, they clubbed it to death. Afterwards, they took the Piraiba Catfish to the police station with the man still inside it for fear that the police would not believe that the catfish had swallowed a man.

Imagine being that Brazilian man underwater in the notoriously muddy waters of the Amazon. You try to keep your eyes open to free the net, but suddenly you sense something watching you and you feel the cavernous suction of a giant fish opening its mouth. You feel the rough pads abrase your bare shoulders. You feel its mouth clamp down around your shoulders with its tail swishing madly, pushing you against the bottom of the river as you struggle upward, toward the light, as the leviathan tries to engulf your torso. It is dark and you are simultaneously drowning and being eaten as you gasp for air inside of the giant fish. You are claustrophobic Jonah. Before the doctors even remove your corpse from the beast, the skin on your face has disintegrated from the stomach acids of the Piraiba and your shoulders have broken inward. Your feet are clean and freshly washed in the waters of the Amazon.

Despite the popularity of such stories, the human-catfish relationship is not normally a prey-predator relationship. According to a survey of the farm-raised catfish industry conducted by the USDA, over 301 million pounds of catfish were processed and sold in 2014. The most popular species of catfish for eating are blue catfish and channel catfish, often served with milk and cornmeal and fried with a slathering of remoulade. Though we eat a lot of it, the amount consumed each year in America has declined by half since 2003.

Catfish are tasty and tend to lurk in the same holes year to year as food floats by. Some backcountry folks in the economically depressed part of the Southern U.S. have figured that if you live on the river, you basically have a discount grocery store in your backyard. The only cost may be a finger or two. They call the practice noodling. Noodlers, often fully dressed, walk around in shallow lakes or crouch along riverbanks running their fingers along looking for deep holes that could house giant fish.

No one knows for certain why the practice is called noodling. Ed Godfrey, of The Oklahoman, interviewed several noodlers in 2009, and their responses were rather varied:

“Flathead catfish are as slippery as wet noodles.”
“To catch a flathead by hand, fishermen must wiggle their fingers like wet spaghetti to entice a giant catfish to bite.”
“After a monster flathead gets through shaking your arm, it dangles from your shoulder like a wet noodle.”
“Early-day noodlers would fish in their birthday suits, thus exposing their noodles.”

The most common explanation, however, is rather simple: “People who blindly explore underwater crevices to get a giant catfish to bite them must be off their noodle.”

When a noodler finds a hole, he sticks his hand deep into it in order to provoke the catfish. After dangling his hand in front of the wide mouth for a moment, the catfish will strike. As the jaws clamp down on the hand of the noodler, he hooks his fingers under the lips of the fish and through the gills and yanks it from its hole. Holding it underwater still, a second noodler often feeds a cord through the gills of the fish and back out through the mouth and, with a simple knot, they have complete control of the animal.

In less than a minute and with no tools, a noodler can find thirty pounds of food. If only the crowd at the feeding of the five thousand had some hard southern guts, they could have just run right down to the Jordan and come back with fish gnawing on their arms.

But despite the spareness of the hunting technique, it is a rather new phenomenon. Native Americans tended to fish with spears or with traps that corresponded with tides as a way of passively catching fish. The first account of noodling was written by James Adair in 1775 when he saw a Native American wrap cloth around his arm and reach down into the caves where catfish were “hiding from the sun.” This account seems to be a rarity.

The first mention of noodling in popular culture is in an old minstrel tune first recorded in 1918 called “Banjo Sam”:

“Catfish, catfish, goin’ up stream,
Catfish, catfish, where you been?
I grabbed that catfish by the snout,
I pulled that catfish inside out, Yo-ho!”

Despite the competitive roughness of most noodlers, it has never been considered a sport. It has only ever been a practical way of catching a lot of food without any gear. Due to the dangers of being in the Southern wilderness, with its variety of venomous snakes and the fact that men reaching into underwater holes are nearly equally likely to have their fingers bitten off by beavers or snapping turtles, it is no wonder that handfishing, grabbing, and hogging has been outlawed in all but four states: Oklahoma, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

To fish for catfish is not terribly exciting. They do not hit the line hard like bass and do not require the skill that it takes to snag at trout. They are not as temporal and lyrical as salmon, nor are they beautifully colored and finely muscled like trout. Despite their abundance and oddness, they rest at the back of the human mind largely unnoticed.

On that summer day out at Lewis Emery Park, I looked down into the water and wished that the catfish would find a way to get the hook out of its throat as it recuperated in its hole under the pier.

As the sun dropped down to the tree line, I walked toward the car with my hands reeking of the catfish’s sour stench and I knew my guilt would not leave me very soon.


Mark Naida is a senior studying English.

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