PAULS VALLEY — A noodler told me once that getting your hand bit by a giant flathead catfish gives you a greater high than any drug ever could.
I’m just going to take his word on that. I have no interest in trying either. But there are many people from Oklahoma and other states who get their kicks out of sliding into a muddy river or lake and blindly reaching their arm into an underwater hole to let a big flathead bite them.
And judging from the crowd Saturday at the 15th annual Okie Noodling Tournament, there are many others who remain fascinated by it.
Clendon West, 28, drove 1,200 miles from Smithville, N.C., to Pauls Valley to underwater wrestle with an Oklahoma flathead.
“I am the only one that does it back home,” West said of hand fishing for catfish. “Everyone thinks I’m nuts.”
West weighed in a 44-pound flathead in the Okie Noodling Tournament Saturday, and like a true Oklahoma noodler, he wouldn’t reveal where he caught it.
Neither would Howard Ramsey of Paris, Mo., who was competing in his sixth Okie Noodling Tournament on Saturday.
“In the water,” Ramsey said, when asked where he caught his 44-pound flathead.
For 12 years, Ramsey has been trying to persuade his home state to legalize noodling. He heads a group of hand-fishermen in Missouri called “Noodlers Anonymous.”
Missouri wildlife officials object to noodling because the catfish are being yanked off their nests by the hand-fishermen and thus numerous eggs are destroyed. It’s a conservation issue, they contend.
“We are going to try to get enough signatures on petitions to put it on the ballot in Missouri,” Ramsey said of noodling.
Ramsey, 68, has been noodling since he was 12, even though it’s illegal in his home state.
“You swim back in the hole and you feel that big catfish’s head and there is just such an adrenaline rush that you can’t describe,” he said. “I pole line. I trot line. I jug fish. It is just throwing the fish in a boat. But this is really back to nature and it is really a sport, and I’m glad Oklahoma’s got one.”
For the first time, a Missouri noodler won the Okie Noodling Tournament. Ramey Webb of Ludlow, Mo, weighed in a 69-pound, 9-ounce flathead that bested the field of 137 noodlers.
He gave the trophy to his father, Gary, a lifetime noodler who, along with Ramsey, has been leading the fight in Missouri to legalize noodling.
Like it or not, Oklahoma has been branded as the noodling state, thanks to Bradley Beesley’s 2001 award-winning documentary, “Okie Noodling,” and then his 2008 sequel, “Okie Noodling II.” Both have been seen by millions of people around the world.
His documentaries resulted in enormous publicity. Journalists from across the country and the globe descended on Oklahoma over the years to write and film stories about these Oklahoma adrenaline junkies who get their kicks by catching huge catfish with their bare hands.
They even spawned a couple of reality TV shows with some members from the original Okie Noodling documentary.
Beesley organized the first Okie Noodling Tournament in 2001 as part of his documentary. Numerous copycat tournaments have popped up across the state in recent years.
“It used to be kind of a novelty,” said Barry Bolton, chief of fisheries for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “You might have known two or three guys that did it. Now, there are a bunch of guys who have started doing it.”
It’s not just guys. Last year’s Okie Noodling winner was Lucy Millsap of West Takawoni, Texas, who comes from the proclaimed “Catfish Capital of Texas.”
The former high school cheerleader weighed-in a 72-pound flathead last year that made her the first female winner of the Okie Noodling Tournament.
There’s even a group of gals who call themselves the Bare Knuckle Babes and sell their own noodling calendar. They were signing autographs Saturday at the Okie Noodling Tournament.
Beesley even feels some regret about shining a spotlight on what once was a little-known subculture and turning noodling into something more mainstream.
“I had no clue the monster I was creating,” he told me in a 2012 interview.
David Baggett, 54, of Lawton is one of the original Okie Noodlers. He’s been a noodler for 30 years and was part of the first Okie Noodling documentary. He sometimes regrets all the exposure that noodling has received from the films and other media.
“You go to pull up to a fishing hole that you fished for years and there’s guys fishing it, and as you leave there’s guys behind you waiting,” Baggett said Saturday in Pauls Valley. “The pressure that is on the lakes right now is tremendous. There’s a lot of youngsters that are out there. It’s crazy.
“Before, I knew where I needed to go to get what size fish I wanted for whatever reason I wanted, whether somebody was having a fish fry and needed 30 pounds of fish or 50 pounds of fish. I knew which holes I could go to to get those fish out of. Now it’s like, wow, I got to hunt around to try to get 30 pounds of fish.”
Noodling is certainly more common these days, but state wildlife officials don’t believe the proliferation of tournaments is harming the resource.
The population of flatheads in Oklahoma lakes and rivers remains healthy, and more catfish are still caught on juglines and trotlines than by noodlers, Bolton said.
But Bolton admits the Wildlife Department doesn’t have any data to support that theory.
“We would like to have more information on noodling,” he said. “It’s tough information to collect. These guys are pretty secretive about their spots. It’s pretty hard to survey them.
“We would like to have more information, but we are not particularly concerned about overharvest by noodlers.”
Now, places like Durant, Wetumka, Commerce, Eufaula, Claremore and other towns across Oklahoma hold noodling tournaments. But the Okie Noodling Tournament is still, in essence, the Super Bowl of noodling, and it will remain in Pauls Valley.
Beesley sold the rights to “Okie Noodling” to the City of Pauls Valley earlier this year. The city paid $50,000, based on the estimation of what Beesley made in merchandising.
Pauls Valley didn’t want to lose an event that draws thousands to Wacker Park.
“We feel like our tournament is true to the noodler and to the sport,” said Pauls Valley Tourism Director Erin Creach. “It’s always been about the fish. We wanted to keep that tradition alive in Pauls Valley.”