Stretched across the back of Justin Taylor's dark red shirt is the slogan that his noodling team lives by.
There, in white screen-printed letters, is the bold phrase that the five man group has officially adopted: “Team Bite Me.”
It's not a rebellious message to those who may think their up-and-coming sport is silly. And it's not a way to disrespect others they come across around the lake.
No, it's literally what they want to happen. It's the goal of their sport.
Swim along the banks of different lakes and rivers, find the catfish holes and let these 50- to 60-pounders bite your arm in an effort to catch them with your bare hands.
Taylor hops out of a black pickup truck, jogs past the muddy tires and unhitches his boat into the water.
Chuck Littlejim, Tony Norton, Chris Raper and Patrick Bennett make up the rest of Team Bite Me.
But on this day, only Taylor and Littlejim are out on the water.
For Taylor, it is a special day. The 12th annual Okie Noodling Tournament. An event that the Washington native has been a part of every year.
It's Taylor's version of the World Series. The culmination of another successful noodling season, and a celebration for his sport.
He learned noodling at East Central University, nearly 20 years ago. It's where he was introduced to the sport by friends that he now calls teammates.
It's a little past 10 a.m., but Taylor has already had a full day and night of noodling.
Tournament participants are given a full 24 hours until the weigh-in at Wacker Park, so the most experienced take advantage of every minute.
He is now entering hour 16, showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, he has a little something extra in his step.
He's coming off a successful night, with five catfish already. But, as he chugs the last bit of his Monster energy drink, you can tell he isn't satisfied.
“We need at least one more big one,” Taylor admits.
Out on the water
The two teammates head out onto Lake Thunderbird. It is not their favorite place to noodle, but, like any other one, they have navigated the area and found particular sweet spots.
They head right toward one of them.
Taylor rips off his red Team Bite Me shirt to reveal his noodling uniform. Faded overalls cut off at the thigh. Muddy running shoes with a few holes. And a hat to protect his bald head from the sun.
“You know what's great,” Taylor says. “This is a sport for fat guys with back hair.”
No luck at the first place.
Taylor hops back in the boat and instructs Littlejim to take him to a spot on the opposite side of the lake.
It's one of the hottest days of the year, but the lake breeze makes it bearable.
Taylor cracks open a beer and takes a deep breath. Days like this are why he keeps coming back. It is his sanctuary.
“The outdoors, it is kind of like my church,” Taylor says. “Everyone is different, but out here on this lake, it is the perfect form of meditation for me.”
Thrill of the hunt
As the boat stops near the shore, the breeze subsides. Nearby trees block the wind and calm fills the air.
Noise is at a premium above the water, but Taylor knows that it can be a far different story underwater.
There are some intricacies to the sport, but the general strategy remains the same. Block the hole, allow the catfish to bite you and catch it with your hand.
It certainly doesn't appeal to everyone. But for Taylor, it doesn't get much better.
“The first time I caught one it was one of the biggest thrills of my life,” Taylor said. “It's like an addiction to that thrill and it keeps bringing me back.”
Even if you live for the thrill, Taylor said successful noodlers have to contain a certain quality.
“No fear,” he said. “I'm a volunteer firefighter and I compare it to running into a burning building. Every time you do it, you never know what might happen.”
As for the dangers itself, snapping turtles, poisonous snakes and angry beavers are potential hazards.
But nothing compares to a desperate bluecat fighting for its life.
“If it has room to move around down there, whew, we call them the ‘armbreaker,'” Taylor said. “It's like wrestling a pit bull on crack.”
Taylor's 20 years of experience are shown in his scars.
His right arm is littered with various lacerations. Some of them, he doesn't remember. Some of them, he will never forget.
Like the long one up the inside of his right arm from a rough encounter with a flathead.
Or the deep slash on his right ankle, courtesy of an angry bluecat.
“I was wrestling him and his fin caught me,” Taylor recalls. “Oh man, it gave me that nasty fever. I'll tell you, that wasn't a fun experience.”
Littlejim has been part of Team Bite Me for 12 years.
His friends always raved about the sport, so he decided to join them. Taylor took him out and showed him the ropes.
On his first day, Littlejim caught a 50-pounder. Immediately, he was hooked.
Now, the longtime friends go out on a regular basis. It's an opportunity to stay close in a sport that has bonded them forever.
“You can't pick your relatives, but you can pick your fishing partners,” Littlejim said. “And out here, you learn what kind of person you truly are.”
That may be the thing Taylor enjoys most about it. On the boat and in the water, hanging around his best friends. Those are the moments he will cherish.
“Most of the time,” Taylor said, “the guys you pick to go fishing with are the same guys that are going to be holding your casket.”
Hanging it up
Taylor's love of noodling has been passed along to his family.
His wife, Brandy, goes out on the water with him. And his two young children are starting to show interest in the sport.
But, whether it be injury or age, there will come a point when Taylor must stop.
Taylor, who's record catch was a 68-pound flathead, has identified the perfect moment to call it quits.
“I always tell my wife,” he said, “when I catch an 80-pounder, I'm done. Mount it up over my head in the living room and tell stories about how I caught it.”
But, as he leaves Lake Thunderbird without his 80-pound dream, Taylor will continue the sport that has grown to define him.