In 2001, director Bradley Beesley introduced most of the world to the sport of “noodling.” Noodling, also known as hand fishing, is the art of plunging one’s arm (or leg) into a submerged hole containing a nesting catfish. The catfish, hopefully guarding a clutch of eggs, will respond by biting the offending limb, upon which the noodler removes his extremity from the hole, hopefully with the fish still attached. It’s a sport that one noodler equates with golf: you never really master it.
Beesley revisits the sport and a couple of the noodlers showcased in the original, in “Okie Noodling II.” The sport has grown in popularity, and the Okie Noodling Tournament, now in its 9th year, is held annually in Pauls Valley, OK to showcase the cream of the hand fishing crop. The movie culminates with the 2007 tournament, where contestants are forced to cope with record rainfall
Among the noodlers we catch up with are David Baggett and Lee McFarlin, who are still pursuing their beloved sport even as they contend with increasing crowds and the notoriety that comes with your sport now being covered by ESPN and National Geographic. McFarlin in particular, who has given up being a full-time plumber to try his hand at being a (rod and reel) fishing guide, makes some wry comments about dealing with his sport’s newfound popularity.
We also get a refresher in noodling basics, and are reminded that the old hands eschew gloves (how else can you tell if it’s a beaver instead of a catfish?). While some, including Skipper Bivins, use their feet, in which case it’s called “grabbling.” The sport is still illegal in a number of states, most notably Missouri, where an organization known as Noodlers Anonymous is fighting to get the sport legalized. Let by Dr. Gary Webb, the group lobbies the MO legislature to overturn the ban, which has been in effect since 1919.
As with the original, the viewer can find they’re going through some conflicting emotions. On the one hand, there’s no denying how weird the practice seems to the outsider, or one whose sole experience with fishing involves casting a line. And seeing Webb coaching his (very) young granddaughter in her first attempts can seem, I don’t know, horrifying. Then again, you realize when Webb and others talk about the way noodling represents a way of life, one revolving around spending time with your family an friends, that they’ve got a point. We don’t play Monopoly anymore; why not noodle?
As with the original, by the end of the “Okie Noodling II,” Beesley has made us identify with these folks, capturing their sincere passion for their pursuit and doing an admirable job of representing it as just another sport.