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Noodling, the sport of catching catfish with your bare hands, is now legal in Louisiana

Noodling, which is when one catches catfish with their bare hands, is legal in Louisiana as of Monday. Not like that’s stopped anyone before.

On a hot July afternoon at Caney Lake in Chatham, a small Louisiana town an hour-and-a-half north of Alexandria, two friends are waist deep in murky water, while a third friend holds on to the small motorized boat to make sure it doesn’t drift too far away from his friends in the water.

20 year-old Winnfield native Eli Spangler secured the snorkeling goggles on his face and dived underwater, sticking his hand into a sunken tire in an attempt to grab a catfish with his bare hands. After more than a minute, he comes back up to the surface, gasping for air and without a fish in hand. His friend, John Robert Blake is standing in the water, ready with a net to hopefully catch a catfish with.

But first, he had some advice to give Spangler to keep the catfish from slipping away: you have to hook your fingers in its mouth.

“Do the same thing to the other side, and it’s going nowhere,” John Robert said.

John Robert’s brother, Rett Blake, talked about the anticipation that builds when you know you have a fish in your hands.

“It's really an adrenaline rush when you know it's a big one too. And he’ll come out and start flopping because they're strong,” Rett said. “They'll pull you around.”

The men were equipped with snorkeling goggles, net, gloves and homemade plastic pipes with small hooks attached to the end to help them secure a catch.

But those tools aren’t enough. To do noodling with success, you have to know a catfish’s behavior.

They enjoy nestling in secluded holes or pockets, both natural or manmade. When noodling, it’s best to look around rocks or fallen logs, or sink your own traps.

Then, with your tools — and a lot of courage — you stick your hand in the fish’s den. It can be a dangerous sport, John Robert pointed out, showing off the cuts on his arm from previous catches and recounting a time when a 30-pound catfish chomped down on John Robert’s arm, all the way up to his bicep.

Kezia Setyawan
John Robert shows off bite marks from the catfish he just caught from this noodling excursion.

“I've lost just about anything you can imagine — almost my life. I've done it all,” John Robert said.

The three men have been noodling for more than five years now, sinking their own traps, such as plywood boxes and even a bathtub to encourage catfish to spawn. With noodling, they mostly try their luck at Caney Lake, which is manmade and stocked with two types of catfish: blue and Opelousas.

On this particular weekend at Caney Lake, they eyed two places as possible catfish catching spots: the shoreline, where they’re able to do noodling without diving under water, and the middle of the lake, where they swim underwater — sometimes holding their breath for well over a minute.

Kezia Setyawan
Eli Spangler holds up the first catfish he's caught with his bare hands after about five years of coming out to noodle and help his other friends.

They’re aware that late July, the end of catfish season, isn’t the ideal time to go noodling — the best catches are done earlier in the season during late spring. Yet Spangler, who usually comes out to support the other “noodlers,” caught his first catfish.

“When we first came out here, we really didn't know what we were doing,” Spangler said. “And then as we started getting better at it, we really just picked it up and it became like a passion for us.”

A couple of years ago, John Robert, Rett and Spangler taught another friend, Jackson McFarland, how to noodle. That friend then taught his dad, who happens to be State Rep. Jack McFarland (R - Jonesboro). At the time, noodling was not legal.

“It takes a little bit of courage to go, maybe underwater, but even just to put your hand inside of a hole of a log, in concrete, or even in a boat ramp under in the water, not knowing exactly what's in there,” McFarland said. “And I think part of it initially was just that, man, I can't let my son show me up. I got to do this.”

State Rep. McFarland added the legalization of noodling to HB 419, a bill he crafted with the input from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

“Let's just go ahead and define it as legal. And everyone can enjoy the sport,” McFarland said previously on Louisiana Considered.

While the representative received some ribbing on the house floor, the bill passed unopposed. Starting Monday, Louisiana will join 16 other states where noodling is legal.

Back at Caney lake, Rett said he’s happy that McFarland pushed for its legalization. According to Rett, it’ll help him and his friends avoid any trouble if people question what they’re doing in the lake, including clearing catfish from under boat ramps — which if left unchecked, the nest can cause the ramp to collapse.

“Because we have had people come out and get ugly with us,” Rett said. “We're actually helping people out (and) having fun doing it too.”

Kezia Setyawan
Eli Spangler, Rett and John Robert Blake ended up catching a total of four catfish.

Even though it was the end of catfish season, it was a good haul for John Robert and his friends, who caught four catfish, weighing in at almost 26 pounds altogether. They celebrated their hard day’s work by frying up the catfish, taking photos and sharing the catch with family.

“This is the best trip I've had all year. I ain’t even gonna lie.” he said.

Rett said that even trying noodling just once will make you want to go again — it’s what happened to him.

“I would say it's addicting,” Rett said. “Of course we are a little crazy. We like to do crazy things.

Kezia Setyawan is a coastal reporter for WWNO and WRKF and is based out of Houma.