It was once a sport very few people had ever heard of. Those who had protected its secrets like a family heirloom.
Now, however, catfish noodling, or grabbling, as some call it, is all the rage in magazines and on TV. Noodling is the art of capturing monster catfish with your bare hands. Right alongside "Duck Dynasty," "Hillbilly Handfishin'" and "Mudcats" are among the most popular shows offered by cable TV networks.
On Monday night, March 11, three Cleveland men will stake their claim among the noodling rich and famous—or at least the famous part.
At 10 p.m., Animal Planet will premiere a three-part miniseries called "Catfishin' Kings." Some have called it the "world series of noodling." The miniseries pits eight teams from eight states, including some of the best noodlers in the country, in a bracket-style competition.
Heath Jordan, Wade Gladson and Erik Almy from Cleveland make up Team Tennessee. Last summer, Animal Planet flew them to Texas to take part in the competition—and perhaps be declared the "Catfishin' Kings."
As the Animal Planet press material reads, "This three-man team [from Tennessee] has been noodling some of the most vicious waters and successfully has developed a strategy of fishing concrete structures for big cats. But do home-state tactics work across state lines?"
Almy has been noodling about five years and about two years ago started guiding clients on the adventurous sport. He said word of mouth pointed the producers to him and his partners. It was a lengthy process, including preliminary on-camera auditions before the trio was asked to sign on the dotted line.
The three men know every catfish nook and cranny on the Tennessee River in Southeast Tennessee and North Alabama. But for this televised competition, there was no home-field advantage for anyone.
"The tournament was held on a lake in Texas, so it was fair chase for everybody involved," Almy said. "Nobody had ever been there before; nobody knew where to go. You had to go out and find the hole, find the fish and bring 'em back alive."
In the bracket-style competition, the winning team was determined simply by whoever brought in the biggest fish. Like all such reality TV shows, the three men were paid for their appearances and are therefore contractually bound to remain silent about who won the competition.
"We are sworn to secrecy," Almy said with a knowing smile.
All we do know is that they apparently made it through round one of the competition and were called back to Texas for a second round.
Noodling can only be done successfully about two months out of the year, during the summer when the big catfish create huge holes where they spawn and lay their eggs. Noodlers have to seek out those secretive lairs and invade them. The catfish are just like a mama mockingbird protecting her nest and do not take kindly to strangers. The only difference is that a huge catfish "pecks" a lot harder than a mockingbird.
Almy said there is one major difference between "Catfishin' Kings" and his style of noodling, and that difference widely separates them from the other noodling shows, such as "Hillbilly Handfishin.'"
"In those other shows, the grabblers all find the fish in a hole, but before they pull the fish out, they run a stringer through its mouth," Almy said. "So when they pull it out of the hole with that stringer wrapped around their wrists, it's a no-lose situation. We don't think that's very sporting. We only use our hands to grab the fish by the jaw, so when you pull that fish out, it is just you against the fish."
As Team Tennessee likes to say, it is noodling with "no strings attached." And when you haul a mad 40-pound catfish out of its hole with your bare hands, things can get very dicey—and sometimes the fish wins.
You can see more about Team Tennessee Monday on NewsChannel 9 at 6 p.m. See Heath Jordan's catfish grabbling videos here.
Richard Simms is a contributing writer, focusing on outdoor sports.
Updated @ 6:20 a.m. on 3/8/13 to correct a factual error: The name of the show is "Catfishin' Kings," not "Catfish Kings," as originally reported.