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The latest from the Oakie Noodling Tournament, where people catch catfish by hand

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Noodling is when people catch catfish using their hands as both the bait and the hook. It is legal in only 17 states in the U.S. Thousands of people from all over the world make the pilgrimage to South Central Oklahoma to celebrate the sport every year. Graycen Wheeler with member station KOSU is here to tell you what you missed at the 24th annual Okie Noodling Tournament this past weekend.

GRAYCEN WHEELER, BYLINE: More than 10,000 people gathered in a lush, shady park this Saturday. That's almost twice as many people as live in Pauls Valley. This is the town's largest event.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The 24th annual Oakie Noodling Tournament.

WHEELER: Among the crowd of out-of-towners? Me, a first-time noodler. I got to practice with noodling guru Nate Williams in a demo tank. Atop a trailer, tall plexiglass walls create a narrow trench filled with murky water and huge catfish.

NATE WILLIAMS: So you know what to do?

WHEELER: I go in there, and I wiggle my thumb?

WILLIAMS: Wiggle your thumb? No, it ain't a bass.

WHEELER: OK.

WILLIAMS: You got to get four fingers.

WHEELER: OK.

WILLIAMS: Wag them.

WHEELER: OK.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. That bottom jaw is like a suitcase handle. You can get ahold of it.

WHEELER: Uh-huh.

WILLIAMS: Then that second hand, you'll probably, for a first-timer, throw him in a headlock. Then at some point when you get him stop wiggling, you can pop him up on your shoulder.

WHEELER: Sweet.

WILLIAMS: Let the crowd go wild.

WHEELER: I can do it.

Williams competed in his first Okie Noodling Tournament in 2005. He was a senior in high school.

WILLIAMS: And been coming ever since - I don't think I've missed a year and - except for that year they had COVID.

WHEELER: Williams and his three sons are legends at this tournament. Nate, the dad, has won multiple times. River, his 15-year-old, took the natural category on Saturday. That means he brought in the heaviest catfish caught without any scuba gear. But at 70 pounds, it was only the second biggest fish of the tournament overall.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And now, winning first place - first place in the scuba division and biggest fish of the day, they're taking home $3,000 today with a 74.29-pound catfish, Levi Bennett.

(CHEERING)

WHEELER: The noodlers come from all over. One man traveled from Japan to compete for his second year in a row. But all the fish were local, caught by hand inside Oklahoma state lines, and they had to be hauled in alive to be weighed on stage. Competitors slap the flopping fish on a plastic table. Tournament crew quickly examines them and puts them in a bucket for weighing. Nathan Roberts is one of the judges. He says things don't always go according to plan.

NATHAN ROBERTS: One of the guys that brought in a fish, we put it in the bucket, and it was about a 45-pounder. And it flexed and shattered the bucket. And the crowd just went crazy.

WHEELER: This year, they weighed in 54 fish. With thousands of dollars on the line, the tournament operates largely on the honor system. But organizers say there have been cheating scandals in the past. That's why big winners now have to take a polygraph, just to be sure they followed all the rules. The event has plenty to do besides ogling massive fish. Kim Plunkett and Amy Walton happen to be the mom and sister of the overall winner, Levi Bennett, but they're also here for the tournament's other offerings.

KIM PLUNKETT: We come to eat a funnel cake and get lemonade.

AMY WALTON: Yeah.

PLUNKETT: That's what we come for.

WHEELER: Tournament goers enjoyed a men's only wet T-shirt contest, a watermelon crawl, a noodling queen pageant and, of course, the demo tank where newbies like me tried noodling in a controlled environment. Outside those plexiglass walls, Williams says, the sport takes a little more courage.

WILLIAMS: You never know what you're going to reach in and get. And then as soon as you do get a big fish, your heart starts pumping, the adrenaline gets going. It's kind of a unique experience, unlike anything else.

WHEELER: Most of the competitors release their fish back into the wild in hopes they spawn even bigger offspring. If you want to try to find them, the Okie Noodling Tournament will celebrate its 25th year next summer. For NPR News, I'm Graycen Wheeler in Pauls Valley, Okla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Graycen Wheeler
[Copyright 2024 KOSU]