Folks in other ZIP codes expect us to be more like Laurey and Curly, the leading couple in “Oklahoma!” the musical.
Out-of-staters (and out-of-country-ers) insist upon a certain gingham and barn-dance quality to us Oklahomans and are confused when we don't eat every meal from a picnic basket. Our worldwide fringe-on-top image isn't going anywhere, but lately you may have noticed a newly-expanded Okie persona. If you're from Oklahoma, there's a presumption that you're a noodler.
We're all flathead wrestlers and the flat-screen is to blame. Channel-flippers will notice the bandwidth is neck-deep in hand-fishing programs, most all of which are based in Oklahoma.
Yup, our state is easily the “Noodling Capital of the World.”
Would-be noodlers routinely travel from continents away, so it seemed the least I could do was to drive across a few counties. Hand-fishing is the fastest-growing industry in Cotton County. That's where you'll find grabbling gurus Bobby Lee and Bobby Leon Sparks, the fingers behind professional guide service Sparks Noodling (www.sparksnoodling.com). There's not a heart-stopping mudcatting incident this father/son team hasn't faced: turtle snappings, beaver bites. If I was ever going to find my noodling nerve, these are the guys to help me do it.
The day starts with some dry-land noodling, blindfolds, plastic dens, and a clamp that randomly pinches. I learn that hand-fishing is unlawful in most other states; it's considered just too hazardous. Noodling is an Oklahoma tradition, but you'll need a fishing license.
Much too soon it's time to wade in. We're at a good “learning hole” — a city-owned reservoir featuring submerged chunks of cement, the mudcats' den of choice.
Bobby Leon finds a catfish hole and scoops up a glob of eggs from inside it, which look like tapioca. This is what the catfish are protecting and why they chomp at anything that threatens the nest.
Hand-fishing works best with a buddy to block den exits, or corral fish with a stick. Most holes are accessible only by diving underwater. My pulse rivaled that of a hummingbird, even after an hour in the lake, which meant I could hold my breath just long enough to get my eyebrows wet. I asked if Bobby Lee could find me a mudcat den in shallower water so I wouldn't have to dunk my head.