There are few things it’s worth braving the early August mid-afternoon heat for in Mississippi, but in the summer of 2010, I found one: A live tutorial on catfish noodling. A visit to my parents’ home in Jackson happened to coincide with the Mississippi Outdoor Show, where expert handfisher Jason Reynolds demonstrated his craft in front of an audience of bored-looking adults fanning themselves with maps of the fairgrounds and small children eager to see the monster fish dragged out by their jaws. Reynolds explained the difference between a flathead and a blue catfish in terms of the severity of bite-wounds you would sustain, advised wearing long-sleeved cotton shirts and carrying a PVC pipe to poke around possible catfish holes for potential snakes, and finally dove into a large aquarium, waggled his arm in a rock crevice until a wary catfish took hold, and hauled a flathead out by its lower lip. At the end, he brought the wriggling fish out to the crowd for children to pet it.
Reynolds also happens to be one of the judges of the annual Okie Noodling Championships, the subject of The History Channel’s handfishing show Mudcats. The History Channel hasn’t been shy about cribbing concepts that work for other channels and adapting them to its own purposes, and Mudcats is no exception, a clear take-off of Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin’. But whereas Hillbilly Handfishin’ focuses on making city-slickers mingle with rednecks in their catfish-noodling endeavors, Mudcats focuses wholesale on the teams of Oklahoma natives that consider noodling an extreme sport. The show follows six intrepid teams of handfishers throughout the eight-week competition, tracking their attempts and logging in the total pounds of fish that each manages to wrestle from the depths.
Here’s the thing: Fishing, in even its most extreme form, is a monotonous activity. And, unfortunately, that monotony infects most shows about fishing. The stakes of handfishing are by definition, pretty high. You stick your hand in a hole, and if you’re lucky a gigantic fish bites you. If you’re unlucky, there’s a snake, beaver, or turtle waiting to snap off a finger or two. The appeal of the sport is that it requires some low-level insanity to do it at all. But even with those risks involved, Mudcats turns into a blur of various scowling, prematurely grizzled sportsmen diving into what seems like every body of water in the state of Oklahoma, all speculating about the size of their potential trophy fish.
The six Mudcats teams all face trials in their catfish collecting. Scooter Bivens, of the same Bivens clan on Hillbilly Handfishin’, is the reigning champion, but upstarts Marion and Mark, who both have mustaches that pay tribute to Hulk Hogan, are trying to contend for the catfish crown as well. Then there’s upstart Tommy, whose claim to fame is catching a catfish that weighed only 9 pounds less than his own skinny self, and a character who refers to himself as “Katt Daddy,” who must be the Guy Fieri of the handfishing world. Father and son team Jerry and Nady are trying to “fish a beaver dam and mend their relationship,” but there’s apparently a reason caught on because the two spend the time bickering and come up empty. Most tragic of all is Thomas, who was abandoned by the railway tracks at the age of 7 and seems like he was torn directly from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
The trickiest part of the whole competition, it seems, is that not only do the teams have to catch enormous, prehistoric fish with their hands; they then have to keep these creatures alive long enough to be weighed at the tournament. In the Oklahoma heat, this requires Katt Daddy to stop en route and dump a bunch of bags of ice into the fish tank, and Thomas seems to show up with his fish only alive in the most technical of definitions. At the end of the day, Marion and Mark take the first round of the championships with a fish that weighs close to 50 pounds. But there are another seven weeks left, and the winner will be the team that brings in the most total weight. Why do it? Why brave your digits? Marion contemplates this at the end, and decides that it must be for the glory of the hunt. “Mark might do it for the women,” he smiled at the camera, “But he ain’t got many of them around now.”
- I have a theory that The History Channel has one in-house narrator whose job is to sound vaguely menacing and vaguely Southern while describing the activities on display. I’m sure I’ve heard the low-level shout of Mudcats in Swamp People, too.