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Guide To Noodling 101 – What Is Noodle Fishing?

Mark Armstrong
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Noodling seems to be a Southern tradition; at least in some areas. You may or may not have heard of it and you may now be wondering what exactly it entails and what noodle fishing is really all about?

Guide To Noodling 101 - What Is Noodle Fishing? - Pinterest ImagePin

With the many videos and TV shows out there, you might have already seen people catch fish like this. But in order to give you a better understanding of what it is we thought we’d put together a short guide to explain it, so you can decide for yourself if it’s for you or not.

So, What Exactly Is Noodling?

Also known as handfishing or noodle fishing, noodling is the art of catching fish with your bare hands. But before you dive on in, it’s not just about catching any type of fish. Noodling is for catfish.

In order to catch the catfish you wade into the water to root around to find holes where a catfish is likely to be nesting. Once you’ve found a hole, or potential nest, you put your arm into the hole and wait for your prize catfish to bite you.

And it is at this point that you can then drag the fish out of the water.

Video: Woman Catches Catfish With Bare Hands

There are usually a couple or several people who go noodling together and there are various local guides that can help you locate and catch these fish with your hands.

In order to noodle for fish you don’t need any gear and just about anyone can do it, as long as you have some swimming skills and are in a place where noodling is allowed.

Why Noodle For Catfish?

Catfish nest in holes underwater and male catfish are known to aggressively protect the eggs in the nest during spawning season, which is primarily during June and July.

And it is this natural response of the catfish that makes them a good choice for noodlers, as they can be easily located and baited into biting.

The male catfish do not leave their nests at all during this time so they will instinctively bite and attack anything that may pose a threat to their nests.

Catfish don’t have teeth, which can also make them more appealing for noodle fishing.

River CatfishPin

However, sticking your hand and arm into their mouths is not without its risks and you could still end up with a torn up hand or arm.

It can also be a successful way to catch very large fish, as noodling can often target the lesser fished areas, such as smaller rivers and streams where the largest catfish are usually nesting.

Another reason that may be behind catfish being the main target of noodling is that across the South, it is a common item on restaurant menus and can be found frequently at the fish counters in grocery stores.

And because there are no rods, reels or any other equipment required for noodling, catching catfish can be one way of obtaining free food for your family.

Origins Of Noodling

Noodling is thought to have been used as a method of catching fish long before European settlers arrived in America, with Native Americans mastering this handfishing technique to catch food.

It is then thought to have become a way of catching food in the Deep South during the Great Depression, when money was tight and noodling was free.

Today, while it may not be a particularly common tactic for catching fish, it is still practised in some rural areas of the South and in some states in the Midwest where it is legal. 

And in recent years there may have been a jump in popularity because of the various television shows that have shown noodling.

Is Noodling Dangerous?

Man holding Catfish NoodlingPin

Noodling can be dangerous, as many of the catfish that are targeted can often be very large and very strong.

This means there is a risk of you being pulled under the water by the fish or becoming trapped or even swept away by a strong current, all of which could cause drowning.

There is also a risk that a large catfish could twist and break your arm while you’re trying to pull it out of the hole. As well as this, there are various other critters hiding in the water that could injure you, including snapping turtles, water moccasins and even alligators.

It is important to have others with you in case you get into trouble.

Because of the drowning risks and the risk of being bitten by other creatures lurking in the water, most noodlers don’t noodle alone. 

Is It Legal?

Noodle fishing is not legal everywhere. In fact, it’s against the law in most states. There are only a few states, in the South and Midwest, that currently allow noodling.

These include, Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Maryland, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas and, West Virginia.

Some states or local bodies of water within some of these states may have regulations regarding size and catch limits, much like traditional angling, so it’s important to check out the laws where you plan to noodle before you wade in.

Why Is It Not Legal Everywhere?

One of the main reasons why noodling is illegal in most states is because of the way in which the fish are targeted, as well as the sizes of fish that are caught. 

Noodle fishing can have a negative effect on fish numbers. By removing the large male catfish from the nest, it not only affects the survival of the eggs in the nest but also removes a successful breeding fish from the water, which can have a significant impact on the numbers of fish.

In What States Is Noodling Legal?

GeorgiaNorth Carolina
KansasSouth Carolina
As of Sep 2019 – Check local authorities for up-to-date information

After the catfish is removed from the nest, research has shown that the eggs will not survive, with a fungus forming on them in just 12 hours. Even if the catfish is released after being caught, it’s not a guarantee that the eggs will survive (if they haven’t been destroyed in the fight) or even that the fish will return to the nest.

After a two year trial of noodling in Missouri, it was discovered that not only were the catfish populations affected but that it would lead to a knock-on effect for the fishing industry, as catfish are considered one of Missouri’s top gamefish for anglers.

How-To: Basic Noodling Techniques

1: Grab Some Buddies

Before you head out to noodle for catfish, it’s important to round up a group of buddies, including someone who has prior experience of noodling. This can make it safer for you while you’re in the water and can also give you the extra hands you might need if you catch a large fish.

2: Find The Holes

Having someone with experience can be useful when it comes to finding holes that might be hiding catfish.

These holes can be found near rocks, logs or riverbanks. But once you find one, you should check out the other sides of it to make sure there are no other exits where the fish could escape through.

Where To Find Holes That House Catfish:

  • Rocks
  • Logs
  • Riverbanks

Once you’ve checked out the hole, block up the other exits, with sticks or rocks or a couple of your buddies.

A lot of the time, noodling is done in shallower water. This can let you feel around with your feet or a stick for catfish holes. You might find that the water will be muddy and murky so you likely won’t be able to see where you’re stepping or anything else that’s under the water.

Deeper water can be more dangerous as it can mean you’re unable to stand up if you need to. Being forced to swim when you’re wrestling with a powerful fish might not be the best idea.

3: Let The Fish Bite You

If there’s a catfish in the hole, it will bite you when you put your arm in. The fish is defending and protecting its nest and will bite at anything. While it can be instinctive for you to pull your arm away, it can be important that when the fish bites that you push your arm forward into its mouth.

Video: Basic Noodling Tips

You then need to grab the fish by the lower jaw and or the gills in order to pull him out.

Some noodlers wear gloves to protect their hands and arms from getting shredded during the fight but others choose to noodle completely barehanded.

However, gloves and other clothing can become stuck on underwater objects, including the fish’s mouth.

4: Pull Out The Fish

Once you’ve got a hold of the fish, it’s time to pull him out. You may need a couple of attempts if you don’t have a good grip of the jaws with both hands. You might also need the help of one of your noodling buddies so that your fish doesn’t get loose.

It can be important to hold the fish with both hands in the sides of its mouth so it is not able to spin and there is less of a chance of your hand being torn up with its sandpaper jaws.


So hopefully you now know a little more about noodling than you did before. It can be an exciting, if not dangerous, way to catch catfish but it doesn’t come without its controversies.

While it may be a tradition in some Southern and Midwestern states, the practice of noodling for catfish may arguably not be the most sustainable way of catching fish, as evidenced by the projected impact on populations after research.

Maybe you love noodling and think more people should get involved? Or maybe you’re against it? Let us know what you think in the comments. And don’t forget to share this with your fishing and noodling buddies to see what they think.

Kayak Fishing For Catfish

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