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Give 'em a hand

6/17/2008

Ten years ago filmmaker Brad Beesley began a quest to highlight the subculture surrounding noodling, a technique to catch catfish that involves an angler reaching into the fish's lair and latching onto its gaping maw. The hunt, the grab, and the ensuing battle between man and fish make noodling a cult-like pastime throughout many states in the Midwest.

Beesley's fascination with noodling began after seeing his relatives at family reunions come back from the lakes and rivers in Oklahoma with bloody arms. Growing up in the suburbs and only having angled with a rod and reel, there was something rugged and wild about wading through a creek and probing the murky depths for the mouth of a monster catfish.

Seven years after releasing his first documentary on the subject, "Okie Noodling," Beesley finished "Okie Noodling II," which offers another glimpse of the "quirky Americana" sport of catfish noodling.

ESPNOutdoors.com reached Beesley on his cell phone to discuss the release of his second documentary and all things handfishing.

EO: What brought you to the decision to make a second documentary about noodling?

Beesley: The first film had such a life that I didn't expect. Usually if you are lucky you can show your film two to three times on PBS and for whatever reason, "Okie Noodling" had a seven-year career on PBS where it plays in 80 different markets. I think people just like to see other people catch fish with their hands. They are fascinated by it so the movie became this little cult, underground hit on PBS.

I had several networks approach me about doing a sequel. I wasn't sure if the world needed another noodling film or if I even wanted to do it and exploit the sport even more than I had. I kind of feel that it had been somewhat commercialized because of ESPN, National Geographic, myself, and all the people that have done little features on the tournament over the past few years. Part of what I like about the sport is that there is nothing you can sell. You can't commercialize the sport of noodling and I kind of like the fact that it is an underground subculture, so I struggled with that [making the second film].

It was a self-indulgent move to make the second film because I truly love the sport. I love the act of walking down the river with these guys for seven or eight miles with a camera on my shoulder. You don't know what's going to happen. The reason I make documentaries is because they are so spontaneous. The cinema verité moment when you are walking down a creek and a guy catches a 60-pound catfish and thrashes around with it: That makes it all worth it.

EO: So you don't feel that making this second film will jeopardize the cult status of noodling?

Beesley: Not really. There is nothing to sell for noodling and it's hard to merchandise the sport. You don't need a bass boat and you don't need certain clothes. I think it will be hard to commercialize the sport because there isn't really anybody that can make any money off of noodling. That is normally when sports generally get exploited, when there is money to be made.

For better or for worse, I still have the Okie Noodling tournament so I know the exact number of guys that are noodling, at least on that weekend of this tournament. It grew from 37 guys the first year [eight years ago] to 125 this past year. That's how limited the sport is and that's how few people do it. I don't fear that the film will be a bad thing when judged in that context. The people in the film are just glad that people are starting to respect noodling as a legitimate form of fishing.

EO: Speaking of the Okie Noodling tournament: How did something like that come about?

Beesley: There has never been a hand fishing tournament in the world that I could find, so it was really just a way for me to create a venue and a climax for the documentary. The first year when I did the tournament I thought it would simply end after we were done filming and no one would think about [the tournament] again, but 2,000 people show up for the event, they want to see these guys with the giant catfish, you get a few sponsors involved and the city and the chamber of commerce, and suddenly we have this event that everyone in the city and the state are interested in. Last year we even had a film crew from Russia and a guy entered from New Jersey.

EO: Your documentary "Okie Noodling II" opened June 14th in Oklahoma City. How was the film received by the audience?

Beesley: The theatre was sold out and we had to turn people away. Part of the appeal of Okie Noodling is that it appeals to a very broad demographic: from your art school kids who think it's this hip, underground thing to Joe Beer Cans who simply likes to watch people catch these fish.

I think the main thing that people came away with is the strong sense of community that these guys have among one another and the fact that the film and the tournament all brought back to life that even though all these noodlers are competing in the tournament, they are also supporting one another.

EO: The movie ends with you catching a fish noodling. How often do you go and what was the biggest fish you ever caught noodling?

Beesley: I went yesterday and caught a fish. If I was back in Oklahoma and it was the season, noodling would be the very first thing that I would choose to do.

The biggest fish I got was probably the fish from the end of the second film that weighed probably 30 or 35 pounds.

EO: For those of us that have never experienced noodling, describe what the whole experience is like.

Beesley: To me it feels like you put your hand in a rat trap and the rat trap has sand paper on it. Then the rat trap with sandpaper starts twisting and turning on your arm. Even the smaller fish are pretty strong. They clamp down so hard and then they start spinning and they don't have big teeth but they scratch you up pretty good.

For the first time in 10 years of documenting these guys, I have my first confirmed serious beaver bite. Last week Scooter Bivens had a video that he had taken over the weekend where he went back in a hole that turned out to be a beaver dam, not a catfish hole. Out of all these guys, no one could confirm a first-hand account of this. But he [Bivens] got bit by a beaver and he had to get 19 stitches and now he's doing the rabies shots.

To me it's just a very romantic process. I enjoy the entire process of walking down a river looking at the wildlife, chatting with a few friends and having this sort of Huck Finn-type of adventure that no 37-year-old grown man could do unless he was making a film or noodling. It gives you an excuse, so you don't seem quite as crazy.

For more information on the documentary, visit www.okienoodling.com.