Doss "Skipper" Bivins, 45, wades into Deep Red Creek in southwestern Oklahoma and begins feeling under brush piles and boulders for holes where a giant flathead catfish might lurk. Within minutes, Bivins locates his quarry beneath a large rock.
"There's a good one down here. Give me the stringer," says Bivins, of Temple, Okla., before submerging in the murky water and hauling out a flailing 45-pound fish with his bare hands and the help of his brother, Clarence, 42.
Last July, the Bivins brothers and their Red River Rustlers team claimed top honors in the ninth annual Okie Noodling Tournament, a fishing contest in Pauls Valley, Okla. (pop. 6,256), in which 140 entrants pursued oversized catfish using only their hands and feet. The Bivins' team won first place and $500 with a 64-pound catfish, and received $300 for entering the heaviest stringer of three fish, which totaled 173 pounds. Both entries set tournament records.
The tournament got its start when Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Bradley Beesley asked Phil Henderson, owner of Bob's Pig Shop, a barbecue restaurant in Pauls Valley, to host the contest so he could assemble the fearless Oklahoma hand-fishermen featured in his 2001 documentary, Okie Noodling.
The widespread airing of the award-winning film and its 2008 sequel, Okie Noodling II, have sparked international interest in the sport, and put Pauls Valley and Bob's Pig Shop on the map as the epicenter of the primitive fishing method.
"It's an unusual way of fishing, no doubt about it," says Henderson, 65. "That unusual character, along with the large flathead catfish, is an almost unbeatable combination for a fishing tournament."
Noodling, also called grabbling, stumping, hogging and dogging, pits daring outdoorsmen against Mother Nature and the various creaturesbeaver, poisonous snakes and snapping turtlesencountered while extracting and wrestling monster catfish from dark, underwater holes.
"Okies call it noodling," says Lee McFarlin, 44, a hand-fishing legend from Stillwater, Okla. "It's like trying to grab a big, long slimy noodle with your hands."
During the Okie Noodling Tournament, contestants have 24 hours to catch flathead catfish from any river or lake in the state. Once caught, the fish are transported live in aerated tanks to Pauls Valley and weighed in at Bob's Pig Shop before a cheering crowd of onlookers.
"It's become quite a novelty," says Della Wilson, 43, executive director of the Pauls Valley Chamber of Commerce. Her son Clint Peters, 21, entered a 56-pound catfish in last year's tournament. "A lot of people don't know about hand-fishing. The thought of catching a fish with your hands really shocks a lot of people."
Catching catfish by hand is an age-old method used by American Indians and rural families who found it an efficient and inexpensive way to put food on the table during the Great Depression.
"It's a family tradition that's been passed on," says Skipper Bivins, who learned grabbling, as he calls it, from his father and grandfather. "We're in the process of teaching our own kids."
Flathead catfish typically are caught in the spring and early summer as they enter secluded cavities to spawn. After the female lays her eggs, they are fertilized and protected by the male. If anyone or anythingincluding fingers and toesenters the nest, the territorial fish bite with their strong jaws and abrasive, tooth-like mouth pads.
"There's something about getting bitten by a fish that really grabs a hold of you," Bivins says.
"It sure beats a rod and reel," adds Clarence "Scooter" Bivins, after hauling a 35-pound flathead out of the water with his bare hands.