Chris Pulchny said he was sure he had a catfish in the hole.
He called for a teammate to block the other side of the rock that he had surrounded and was eagerly waiting for a catfish to take a big bite on his hand.
“I'm literally petting this thing's side,” Pulchny said. “Hurry up and get around there and make sure he doesn't come out the back.”
After submerging himself underwater twice to check the hole, Pulchny, 25, re-emerged from the brown, murky water to deliver the bad news.
“Umm, I think I lied to y'all,” Pulchny said. “This is just an old fire extinguisher. I could've sworn we had one.”
This outcome is repeated often during the 24-hour time allotment for the Okie Noodling Festival.
Pulchny and his partner, Tell Judkins, attempted to wrangle as many massive flathead catfish as they could by sticking hands, feet or sticks into holes along the banks of different lakes and rivers in Oklahoma.
“The female catfish comes in and lays the eggs in those holes and the male comes in behind him and does his business,” Pulchny said. “When you stick your hand in that hole, you kind of start to shake all over, it's a rush.”
As Pulchny and Judkins, 23, step in the water of the Canadian River, a surprised yelp comes from Pulchny as the water is a bit colder than he expected.
“This won't last long,” he said. “This will feel like bath tub water in an hour or two.”
Pulchny said he recognizes the danger in sticking your hands where they don't belong.
Pulchny said a catfish bite feels like having your hand rubbed between two wire grill brushes; it's not a significant pain, but you remember it, he said.
The biggest fear of any noodler is being trapped underwater. Pulchny said he remembers hearing about a noodler that was pinned when a rock that he had his hand in shifted and trapped his arm and he drowned.
But Pulchny has already survived one accident that should have killed him. In 2008 he was thrown from the tailgate of a pickup truck and smashed his head into the curb, which left him in a coma for three months.
“The doctors told my parents several times that I would be dead by morning,” Pulchny said. “When I woke up, I asked my dad how long I had been out. Then I cursed and said I was (mad) because I missed deer season. He told the nurse that I was gonna be all right.”
Having been an avid noodler for more than a decade, Pulchny convinced Judkins to join him this summer, and the two have been noodling every day for the past month.
“My girlfriend is getting suspicious because everyday I come home and I'm exhausted and sore,” Judkins said. “She laughed at me the other day and said ‘I thought you were out there fishing.'”
Judkins, a former leader of the Oklahoma State drum line for the marching band, wears his band shoes while noodling because he says their tight fit works best when he has to stick his foot into a hole.
“These shoes marched up and down the field at Boone Pickens,” Judkins said. “I like to think that a little bit of the stadium turf goes everywhere I do.”
The contents in the bed of Judkins' truck are nearly as interesting as his noodling habit. Next to the 50-gallon horse trough that Judkins and Pulchny hope they fill with catfish keepers are other smaller buckets filled with different head or body parts of animals they have found while noodling.
“I noodled this raccoon head the other day,” Judkins said. “Bet nobody can say that at the tournament.”
Also joining the duo is Judkins' girlfriend, Megan Trope, and Pulchny's friend Rita Sanders. Pulchny's brother Dustin completes the team. He's noodled all day at Lake Eufaula and will meet up with the rest of the team to grab his “Noodling our lives away” team shirt at the tournament in Pauls Valley.
As Sanders helped Pulchny by blocking another hole he had called “fish” on, her neck and chin were getting covered in the slimy runoff that floated to the top of the river. Sanders said she's never been a girl who's afraid of getting her hands dirty, but even she admits noodling tests that stance.
“I really just never wanted to live my life thinking that I hadn't tried something,” Sanders said. “I would much rather be outside doing something fun than stuck at home inside or something.”
The day ends without any fish being caught, but the team doesn't drive to the tournament empty-handed. They enter a three-fish stringer that almost totals 44 pounds, which falls 20 pounds short of the biggest single fish caught at the tournament.
“That's enough to earn us a beer,” Judkins said. “That's good enough for me.”