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The Fearless Fish Freaks: Page 2

7/17/2007

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A day of dampness

With the rain falling on three boats, three media crews, seven noodlers and one biologist, the boats blast across the water. McFarlin, at the controls, munches a slice of pizza down to the crust and tosses it backward over his shoulder. He pulls up on a spot that to the untrained eye is indistinguishable from any other on the lake: just another patch of chocolate milk corrugated by the constant breeze.

Into the drink go McFarlin; his son, Justin; Justin's friends, Derek and Adrian; and Mark McFarland, a cousin of Lee McFarlin. (The difference in their names is said to go back to a spelling error several generations old.) They find a regular hole and probe the structure with varying lengths of old broomhandles, trying to rile the fish inside while blocking its egress with their feet.

McFarlin gropes, dives, returns for breath, dunks himself again. Underwater, the fish is rushing to one side of the hole, turning its tail to McFarlin's reach, and staying just out of reach. Then, McFarlin breaches the surface with a cry that resonates in the heart of every photographer, noodler and scribe within earshot:

"STRINGER!"

The men hustle to get a cord, like an oversized leather bootlace, to thread through the fish's lip. And with the rain falling, they lug up a sack of fish-flesh covered in grey-green swirls. Justin drags the beast to the edge of his dad's fiberglass boat and hoists it over the rail.

The fish lands with a smacking thud, and proceeds to slide around the deck floor like an obese shuffleboard puck.

The men wrangle it into one of the livewells, but decide against leaving it there. The monster's simply too large, so Jeff Melton and his brother Wayne Boyd, friends of the McFarlin clan, deliver it back to a tub back at the trucks.

McFarlin — who with his Swisher Sweet cigar poking out of a white tip cuts a vaguely Gonzo figure — pilots the boat to a couple of more holes, through more cloudbursts, with the poor documentarians fighting lens fog all the way. The group arrives at a reliable spot: a submerged storm cellar. After much bobbing and poking, McFarlin returns to the surface obviously miffed. The fish (40 pounds? 50?) escaped by driving itself into the back of his thigh, lifting him out of position, and speeding from the hole. McFarlin, cigar tip clinched in his teeth even underwater, comes up cussing.

He cheers a bit when he gets the report on the fish he caught.

"He bottomed my scale out," Jeff tells him.

"What's that go? Fifty?" McFarlin replies. "Tell you what, that one there might do it. I just need two more to go with him."

They did get two more, it turned out, though not the two they would have preferred, near a hole they call "the station" — the watery top of what used to be a service station before the lake was dammed. Now it's a pasture of thistles and cow plop, with slick rocks lining the water's edge.

When Justin hops back into the drink, cigarette in his mouth, Jeff razzes him: "You can't walk and chew gum at the same time."

"No," the young man says, "but I can smoke and swim at the same time."

They have a hit list of perhaps 30 holes in this lake alone. There are almost certainly more, but noodler code prevents this crew from exploring areas where they see others diving, and they hope that other noodlers hold the same respect.

Hole-jumpers are apt to find their own holes cleared out, or worse, booby-trapped. Still, they know they share noodling holes: several of the sticks they use, they've claimed from inside catfish dens.

This one turns out to be the trickiest of the day. With feet hemming the fish under its structure, McFarlin and Mark take turns, almost as if they're on a see-saw, dunking beneath to rankle the fish they've found. When Mark goes in face-first, all that's visible is the outline of his white basketball shoes just beneath the surface.

"Are you gonna catch him?" McFarlin jeers to his cousin. "Or are you going to make love to him?"

The fish keeps scuttling back underneath a ledge, bashing into the legs of the hole-blockers, until McFarlin captures it, and then another. The two fish together weigh far less than the first fish, and do little to fill out the stringer McFarlin wants. The men work their way down the bank until yet another smoke-colored storm cloud threatens.

This one is full of lightning. The men pile back into the boats and dash back to the parking lot. From the back of McFarlin's boat, his friends' boat appears to be racing a wall of water. As soon as they hit the ramp, the water is once again upon them.

Rest and food

The men adjourn for home, and then to the Shortcake Diner for eggs and sausage and hashbrowns that McFarlin dusts with a homemade spice mix he calls Lucky Lee's.

They pass around an old issue of the lad mag FHM with an article on noodling and a photo of McFarlin standing in a river, pulling a massive catfish up like a suitcase. (In that shot, he sports a huge beard that he said he had to cut because it filled with catfish slime.)

He has also taken a New York Times writer on this trip. Anything he can to do to promote the sport, he says: "It's the funnest thing you can do."

That night, the McFarlin crew stole under darkness to a location they would not reveal to their visitors and scrounged up a couple of lunkers to haul to Pauls Valley on Saturday morning.

The cats they found were huge. But the weigh-in attracted others larger still.

Continue the story by reading Part II