Why would three guys from Minnesota want to drive 11 hours to Oklahoma just to get their hands, fingers and forearms mauled by a catfish?
“I guess we kind of want to be a little crazy,” said Jesse Hansen of Plainview, Minn.
Hansen, his brother Josh, and their friend, Levi Ellingson, will be traveling from Minnesota to Oklahoma later this week to go noodling.
They are avid outdoorsmen in Minnesota, often fishing for smallmouth and walleye, but they say it doesn't compare to the thrill of noodling for Oklahoma flatheads.
“There is nothing close to noodling up here,” Hansen said.
These Minnesota residents are so ate up with noodling they became Oklahoma City Thunder fans during the NBA playoffs.
They are even considering buying land in Oklahoma and have been growing beards the past two months to look more redneck. It's intended as a compliment.
“Anything to do with Oklahoma, we're all about it,” Jesse Hansen said.
And it's all because of noodling.
The Minnesota trio will be competing this week in the 12th annual Okie Noodling Tournament, which culminates Saturday night with the weigh-in at Pauls Valley's Wacker Park, where it has moved to this year because it's outgrown Bob's Pig Shop.
If you are not acquainted with the Okie Noodling Tournament, then frankly you must have been living in a deeper hole than any of Oklahoma's flathead catfish.
The annual tournament — where fishermen scatter border to border in Oklahoma to scour underwater holes and crevices with their hands for flathead catfish – is a media darling.
Since the first tournament a dozen years ago, noodling in Oklahoma has been the subject of hundreds if not thousands of magazine and newspaper articles.
It's been featured on numerous outdoor and online television shows, talk shows, reality shows and even cooking shows.
The noodlers profiled in the first Okie Noodling documentary, which spawned the Okie Noodling tournament, are in such demand to showcase their skills in front of a camera that they need press agents.
Bradley Beesley, a former University of Oklahoma film student who produced the Okie Noodling documentary, said a “major cable network” is developing a weekly series about noodling.
Beesley said the cable show will be an “episodic documentary” but will not reveal more details.
Who knows? Perhaps Charlie Sheen will be starring in “Noodling with Two and a Half Men.” Or “The Real Noodlers of McIntosh County.”
I jest, but there wouldn't be so much media attention if people were not fascinated by noodlers, men and women who are blindly willing to stick their arms in an underwater hole in hopes of getting bitten by a giant flathead catfish.
Like a milk factory worker, property manager and heating and air technician from southeastern Minnesota.
The Hansen brothers and Ellingson first learned about Okie Noodling from watching television and YouTube videos.
They googled “noodling” and learned about the Okie Noodling Tournament. It took two years of mustering enough courage, but Jesse Hansen finally persuaded his brother and Ellingson last summer to travel to Oklahoma and enter the Okie Noodling Tournament.
“We don't really know what we were doing, but we were going for it,” Jesse Hansen said. “We got maps and we just looked for dirt roads that led to a lake and we jumped in.”
They didn't catch a fish, but they got bit. Hansen, who is in the heating and air conditioning business, compared it to being shocked by a live wire.
“That's what it felt like to me, getting electrocuted,” he said. “I am not kidding. The way they bite, they hit you so fast and shake your hand and spit it out at the same time. You are like, ‘What just happened?' The first time really freaked me out.”
And yet, he wants to do it again. Their friends in Minnesota “think we are absolutely nuts for going down there and trying it,” Hansen said.
“I probably got bit by five or six different catfish last year, but I wasn't able to pull one out of the hole. That's the goal this year, to catch a catfish.”
They are so serious in their quest, they already made a trip to Oklahoma in May to scout a few good noodling areas. They marked those holes with their GPS.
They also learned a few tips last year from some veteran Oklahoma noodlers, such as it's best to reach into the hole with your palm down instead of your palm up. It's easier to grab the catfish's jaw that way.
“This year we plan on getting on stage (at the Okie Noodling Tournament),” said Ellingson, who plans to make a trip to the Okie Noodling Tournament an annual pilgrimage.
“This is pretty much going to be a ritual for the rest of our lives,” he said. “We loved it.”
Last year, Hansen sat in an Oklahoma City bar after noodling, gazed at his battle scars, and wondered how he could have missed all of those fish. He doesn't plan to let that happen again.
“I couldn't figure out why I couldn't hang onto one,” he said. “I want to catch one really bad. I really do.”
WHAT: 12th annual Okie Noodling Tournament
WHERE: Wacker Park in Pauls Valley, 5 blocks northeast of the original venue, Bob's Pig Shop
WHEN: Saturday, July 9
RULES: Noodlers can begin hand fishing at 7 p.m. Friday. They can catch fish anywhere in Oklahoma but must return to Pauls Valley with live fish by 7 p.m. Saturday to be eligible.
PRIZES: Prizes are awarded in the natural and scuba divisions. The top cash award is $1,000 for the biggest flathead catfish. Cash prizes also for the biggest three-fish stringer, top female noodler and top noodler 18 or younger.
ENTRY FEES: The entry fee is $30 per person but increases to $50 after Wednesday.
CONTACT: For more information, visit www.okienoodling.com or call (405) 238-1669.