© 2024 KOSU
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Thousands flock to Pauls Valley for Okie Noodling Tournament

A teenage boy with long hair carries a 70-pound catfish over his shoulder. Behind him, a man carries a second catfish. Both fellas are wearing shirts that say Adrenaline Rush and matching hats. Behind them, a crowd of people in a verdant park.
Martin Wilson
/
for KOSU
River Williams (left) shows off his division-winning 70-pound catfish as five-time tournament winner Nate Williams walks behind him.

Noodling — in which people catch catfish using their hands as both the bait and the hook — is only legal in 17 states. That’s why people from all over the world make the pilgrimage to Pauls Valley to celebrate the sport every year.

The 24th Okie Noodling Tournament was on Saturday. The event attracts more than 10,000 people — almost twice as many as live in Pauls Valley, 60 miles south of Oklahoma City.

The tournament started much smaller. Documentary filmmaker Bradley Beasley had collected a bunch of handfishers for a film about noodling.

“One of the guys piped up and said, well, wouldn't it be cool — all these guys that you're filming — if we all met somewhere and had a tournament weigh-in, kind of like Bassmasters?” Jennifer Samford said. She’s the Director of Pauls Valley Parks and Recreation and has been involved in more than a dozen of the tournaments.

At first, the noodlers just met at a local restaurant: Bob’s Pig Shop. But soon, the tournament outgrew that venue and moved to the park. Today, it’s Pauls Valley’s biggest event and costs six figures to put on. But Samford said it’s worth it to bring so much business into the community.

Tournament organizer Jennifer Samford (center) presents winner Levi Bennett with his prizes.
Martin Wilson
/
for KOSU
Tournament organizer Jennifer Samford (center) presents winner Levi Bennett with his prizes.

“Motels were full, everybody was fully booked, and the restaurants were packed,” Samford said. “There have been times where there was no ice to be had in town and all the convenience stores were very busy.”

People are drawn to the mystique and danger of noodling. For those who haven’t heard of it: Have you been living under a rock? Probably not, because that’s where noodlers stick their hands to look for catfish. Pro handfisher Nate Williams bristled at the misconception that you only use your thumb to lure the fish.

“It ain’t a bass!” he said. “You got to get four fingers. The bottom jaw is like a suitcase handle.”

Williams would know — he first competed in this tournament as a high school senior in 2005.

“I’ve been coming ever since,” he said. “I don't think I've missed a year, except for that year they had COVID.”

Williams and his three sons are legends at this tournament. Nate has won with the overall biggest fish five times. River, his 15-year-old, took the natural category on Saturday. That means he brought in the heftiest catfish caught without using scuba gear.

But at 70 pounds, it was only the second-biggest fish of the tournament overall. The biggest catfish arrived in the arms of Levi Bennett, who competed in the scuba category. His fish weighed 74.29 pounds. Bennett’s wife, Kodi, won the women’s division with a 54-pounder.

Not all the competitors came from Oklahoma noodling dynasties. One man traveled from Japan to compete for his second year in a row.

Tournament visitors marked where they came from on a map.
Martin Wilson
/
for KOSU
Tournament visitors marked where they came from on a map.

“I've met people from all over the place,” Samford said. “I've met a couple that drove all the way from California because they wanted to be here.”

But all the fish were local — caught by hand in Oklahoma waters. Tournament rules stipulate they had to be caught with valid fishing licenses after 6 a.m. Friday and delivered to the tournament stage by 6 p.m. on Saturday. And they had to be hauled in alive.

Once they made it to Wacker Park, competitors slapped the flopping fish on a plastic table. The tournament crew quickly examined them and put them in a bucket on a scale.

This year, competitors submitted 54 fish weighing a combined total of 2,080 pounds.

This year’s weigh-in wasn’t too eventful, but that hasn’t been the case in years past.

Nathan Roberts lowers a catfish into the bucket for weighing.
Martin Wilson
/
for KOSU
Nathan Roberts lowers a catfish into the bucket for weighing.

“One of the guys that brought in a fish, we put it in the bucket,” said long-time judge Nathan Roberts. “It was about a 45-pounder, and it flexed and shattered the bucket. The crowd just went crazy.”

With thousands of dollars on the line, the tournament operates largely on the honor system.

“We have had cheating scandals,” Samford said. “Luckily those have been many years ago and the water's under the bridge on that.”

In recent years, they’ve been having big winners take a polygraph test to make sure they followed all the rules.

The event has plenty to do besides just ogling massive fish. Kim Plunkett and Amy Walton happen to be the mom and sister of the overall winner, Levi Bennett. But that’s not the only reason they attended.

“We come to eat a funnel cake and get lemonade,” they said in near unison.

Tournamentgoers could practice noodling in a demo tank.
Graycen Wheeler
/
KOSU
Tournamentgoers could practice noodling in a demo tank.

In addition to concessions, tournament-goers enjoyed a men-only wet t-shirt contest, a watermelon crawl and a kids’ catfish-eating challenge. They also crowned an Okie Noodling Queen from five contestants who answered trivia and completed an obstacle course.

Perhaps the most thrilling exhibit for noodling newbies was the demo tank, where anyone could pay $20 to noodle in a controlled environment. Atop a trailer, tall, plexiglass walls created a narrow trench filled with water and huge catfish. The fish lurked under a ledge, waiting for fingers to clamp down on.

Outside those plexiglass walls, Nate Williams said, the sport takes a little more courage.

“As soon as you do get a big fish, your heart starts pumping, the adrenaline gets going,” Williams said. “It's a surprise every time. You never know what you're gonna get, whether it's a different animal, or whether it's the size of the fish.”

Samford said most of the competitors release their fish back into the wild in hopes they spawn even bigger offspring. If you want to try and find them, the Okie Noodling Tournament will celebrate its 25th year next summer.


* indicates required

Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
KOSU is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.
Related Content