Noodling is fishing for catfish using only bare hands, practiced primarily in the southern United States. The noodler places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. Many other names, such as catfisting, grabbling, graveling, hand-grabbing, hogging, cat-daddling, dogging, deepthroating, gurgling, tickling and stumping, are used in different regions for the same activity.
The term “noodling”, although today used primarily towards the capture of flathead catfish, can and has been applied to all hand fishing methods, regardless of the method or species of fish sought. Where the name “noodling” originated is not actually known, but the name is not at all illustrative of the dangerous craft. Noodling as a term has also been applied to various unconventional methods of fishing, such as any which do not use bait, rod & reel, spear gun, etc., but this usage is much less common.
Due to concerns over the safety of noodlers and sustainability of fish populations, the technique is illegal in some states where it was once traditionally practiced. As of 2002, it was legal in some form in eleven states, sometimes with restrictions on the species or sizes of fish, and on the specific methods that may be employed
Although the concept of catching fish with only the use of the arm in the water is simple enough, the process of noodling is more complicated. The choice of catfish as the prey is not arbitrary, but comes from the circumstances of their habitat. Flathead catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers and lakes and thus are easier to capture due to the static nature of their dwelling. To begin, a noodler goes underwater to depths ranging from only a few feet to up to twenty feet and places his hand inside a discovered catfish hole. If all goes as planned, the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the fisherman’s hand, usually as a defensive maneuver, in order to try to escape the hole. If the fish is particularly large, the noodler can hook the hand around its gills.
Most noodlers have spotters who help them bring the catfish in, either to shore or to their boat; noodling in pairs is considered important for safety, and also makes it a more social activity, with noodling partners often forming long-term partnerships.