Stillwater News Press


June 29, 2014

Commentary: Noodling is more than a crude way of catching fish

LUTHER, Okla. — Every noodler has a story.

After all, it takes considerable chutzpah to stick your hand down an underwater hole — one that could harbor beavers, snakes or snapping turtles — in hopes that a catfish that’s larger than a fourth-grader will latch on but not manage to drown you as you fight to land it.

But few noodlers probably have stories like those of Terry Ivey. A retired corrections officer who lives in Guthrie, Ivey, 48, was among 117 people out noodling in holes scattered throughout Oklahoma last weekend in hopes of taking home the grand prize at the annual Pauls Valley Okie Noodling Tournament. The winner, Ramey Webb, of Ludlow, Mo., turned in a 69-pound fish.

Ivey epitomizes the tournament’s slogan: “No hooks, no bait, no fear.” He describes a recent adventure when, alone in the water, he somehow got his head trapped between a rock and a thrashing fish.

“It went bam, bam,” he says. “It didn’t knock me out, it just came close. I saw stars.”

Noodling as a technique dates back centuries. Noodlers put a hand into a hole that contains a fish, and the fish either bites down or a noodler pushes a hand into the fish’s mouth, before extracting the day’s catch.

These days, while it’s still a method to catch food, noodling is more man-versus-nature competition.

“It’s basically a wrestling match, depending on the size of the fish,” Ivey says. “Sometimes I’ll get whipped, and sometimes I’ll win.”

For last weekend’s tournament, Ivey threw on a pair of old jeans and a white patriotic T-shirt that turned reddish-brown the instant he submerged into one of Oklahoma’s muddy rivers. Ivey had lathered sunscreen everywhere, including his eyelids. He’d thrown on a pair of beat-up gloves to protect himself from his quarry’s wrath.

Despite the gloves, Ivey’s arms are marked with half-healed scabs and dozens of scars. The scabs, he says, were left the day before by a mean catfish that got above his gloves and bit him. The other scars are souvenirs of nearly 40 years of noodling - signs of battles he’s fought since his dad taught him how to noodle at age 8.

Ivey, who limps slightly due to sciatica and four hip implant surgeries, looks more at home in water than on land. During the tournament, he tries a hole for the first time that’s been recommended by his partner for the day, Travis Bailey, 29, of Edmond.

Long snakes slither past but don’t faze Ivey, who has had his share of bites, though none poisonous. Nor is he unsettled as he plows through patches of poison ivy and poison oak, or two barbed wire fences, or some Class 1 rapids. Normally, Ivey said he avoids rapids because that’s the fastest way to drown, but since he was fishing Bailey’s hole, he navigates them.

“It’s an art,” he says of noodling. “You’ve got to know what you’re doing.”

But, for Ivey, it’s something more personal. It was noodling that got him back on his feet after a drunken driver hit him head-on when he was just 19, requiring a hip implant. He still recalls the day his dad pushed his wheelchair to the river bank. Ivey crawled into the water to float and noodle. It was his own style of rehab.

Noodlers typically have two complaints, says Ivey — their wives (he’s not married) and the fact Oklahoma recently outlawed noodling at night, which is prime noodling time since you can more easily conceal your best spots from other fishermen.

Ivey contends that night time noodlers are “the real noodlers” —not ones recently drawn to the sport because of its publicity in the movies and television. And he dismisses the logic about safety.

Indeed, after hip implants, diabetes and a case of swimmer’s ear, Ivey keeps close to shore. He rarely ventures beyond water that’s hip-deep.

But some things he’ll never change. He’ll never use a rod and reel.

“It’s just an adrenaline rush and the challenge of being one-on-one with the fish,” he says. “It’s what I do because I can’t play football anymore.”

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