PAULS VALLEY — When Lucy Millsap walked onstage in a hot pink tank top with a 72-pound catfish hoisted over her shoulder, the crowd couldn't help but take notice.
Several snapped pictures with the 19-year-old from Quinlan, Texas, on their cellphones.
“It's nice to come to Oklahoma and be famous for a big catfish,” Millsap said.
Millsap drove three hours hauling her dusty brown, whiskered catch in a red tub in her truck bed to claim the top prize at the 14th annual Okie Noodling Tournament.
She beat 200 contestants to win the $1,500 prize in the “Big Fish” category and was the first woman to do so.
“My dad asked me if I wanted to fish in the women's division and I said, ‘Heck no.' I don't want to fish in the women's division. I want to beat the men,” Millsap said.
Contestants had 24 hours to catch a catfish with their hands and bring it back alive to Wacker Park in Pauls Valley by the 6 p.m. Saturday weigh-in.
While the crowd waited for noodling teams to arrive, kids feasted on catfish in an eating contest.
Filmmaker and former University of Oklahoma film student Bradley Beesley works as the festival's coordinator. He started the event 14 years ago while making his documentary, “Okie Noodling.”
The first festival was supposed to be the last.
What began as a film promotion experiment with a crowd of 500 has turned into an annual summer festival that draws about 10,000 people from across the country, Beesley said.
“We never thought it would take off like this,” he said. “It was just a device for the film.”
Queens of catfish
For Millsap, noodling was more fun when it was still illegal in Texas.
In those days, sneaking around on a boat at night required someone to watch out for the game warden.
The former high school cheerleader and student council president still fishes at night to recreate the heady chase of an off-limits game.
She pulled her winning flathead for the festival from Lake Texoma about 3 a.m. that day.
People wouldn't take her for a noodler, Millsap said. “I went through my entire high school career and no one ever knew.”Millsap said representing female noodlers made the experience worthwhile.
The logo printed across her tank top spoke of this cause: Bare Knuckle Babes.
At the festival, the Babes sold calendars featuring female noodlers from all over the country.
Millsap claimed the photo spot for May.
“Women don't think they can do a lot of stuff. And you get a lot of trash talk from the guys,” Millsap said. “I'm proud to justify the name ‘bare knuckle babes.'”
Noodling first gained national attention after Moore-native Beesley featured the offbeat sport in his documentary and his spinoff show, “Mudcats.”
He said the festival is a way to keep hand fisherman connected.
The festival “provides these guys with a sense of community that they wouldn't normally have,” Beesley said. “Noodling is normally a very secretive, clandestine sport.”
Over a decade after he made his film about noodling, Beesley has a lingering fascination with its participants.
“They are people that respect and revere these catfish,” Beesley said. “It's easy to go out, use a gun and shoot a deer. It's something else to catch the fish on its own terms.”
Noodling can be risky.
Just ask Millsap. She has been to the emergency room a number of times from puncturing her foot with rusty nails while noodling. She still considers the hand-hunt for catfish worth it.
Even though she started noodling when she was 5, this was Millsap's first competition.
After turning her flathead in, she watched the muddy fish lumber and circle the bottom of an onstage pool.
Does the catfish have a name?
Adjusting her pink camouflage ball cap, Millsap stops and thinks.
“Dinner,” she said.