Some people fish with a rod and reel. Others with a cast net. Some have even been known to use a stick of dynamite. But nothing compares to the sheer craziness of noodling.
Noodling — also called graveling, hand grabbing, or hogging — is the sport of fishing for massive flathead catfish with nothing but your bare hands. Fishermen on noodling trips will scour inland rivers and lakes for submerged, hollow logs, underwater hollows, or holes in which the massive catfish spawn. The flatheads typical hover in the chamber, slowly paddling oxygenated water over the egg mass contained therein. Typically, a single flathead sits at the entrance to the hole, but in some cases multiple fish have been found in a single hole.
Having found a potential habitat, a fisherman will dive down and place his hand and arm in the cavity. If he is lucky, the catfish will strike out at the arm and bite down, securing the hand with a strong grip and a mouth lined with sandpaper-like tissue. With the fish locked on, the angler then hauls the fish out of the hole, up through the water, and on to the boat.
"It's a tough breed that does this kind of thing," says noodling enthusiast Gene Hayes. "You've got to realize there are certain things that can happen out there that can happen when you're doing this."
He adds, "It takes a special individual to stick their hand in a hole in the Lowcountry. It usually involves Budweiser. You're gonna leave with some blood on you. That's one of the reasons why you don't have a big following."
Flathead catfish are not native to South Carolina. The species was introduced to the area water systems during the mid-1960s, when the S.C. Department of Natural Resources purposely stocked them in what is now Lake Thurmond. A number of tributaries led from the lake, providing a perfect spawning environment for the massive flathead catfish. As a result, record-breaking flatheads have consistently been pulled from the area. In the two tributaries of Little River and Long Cane Creek, fishermen are permitted the use of a seine or net in catching the fish. This practice is only legal on these two tributaries, however; elsewhere, hand-grabbers are on their own.
Because the flathead is not only huge but also highly piscivorous — it eats other fish — it has the ability to dominate all other species in a lake, stream, or river. As a result, the DNR's policy toward the flathead has been to encourage their harvest. The organization's efforts to manage the species in Lakes Moultrie and Marion have paid off, with the population of flatheads having stabilized and those of their smaller cousin, blue catfish, having dipped of late.
"You've got to realize that along with being bitten by the actual fish itself, there are certain things that are out there and other critters that you can encounter while doing this," Hayes says. "For instance, I have a friend who got bitten by a beaver."
Hayes, who spent 33 years working for the DNR as a fish biologist, has done the majority of his noodling in the Upstate, where it is a touch safer than it is here in the Lowcountry. He says, "Down in the Lowcountry you can factor water moccasins and alligators into the mix."
For Hayes however, the risk is worth it. The flathead is both huge and tasty. "The fish are impressive," Hayes says, adding that a 40-lb. catfish can be turned into a three-foot-long fillet. "Put that on the grill and it's good."