July 18, 2014

Underwater battle: It’s man (or woman) vs. big catfish

There’s no need for rods and reels when the Webb family goes fishing. They land giant flatheads by hand in Oklahoma tournament.

When Ramey Webb talks abut getting a few bites when he goes fishing … well, let’s just say he’s being literal.

Webb is a noodler. That means he sticks his hands into underwater holes and uses his fingers as bait.

The bites he gets? That’s when a big catfish chomps down on his hand and won’t let go.

“It’s like grabbing an egg out from under a hen,” said Webb, 39, who lives in Ludlow, Mo. “That big ol’ catfish doesn’t want you coming into her space, and she’ll show it.

“I’ve got scars all over from where I’ve been bit. People say we’re crazy, doing something like that.

“But to me, it’s the ultimate rush. When I get ahold of a big catfish and have to wrestle her out of a hole, that’s fun.”

Webb enjoyed that “ultimate rush” recently when he won the Okie Noodling Tournament, a hand-fishing event that has garnered national attention.

He and 136 others hit the rivers and reservoirs of south-central Oklahoma in late June to fish around for holes in the banks where flathead catfish often retreat to nest. Webb apparently found the right place.

He found a rocky area, held his breath, and descended into the murky water of a lake (he won’t say which one) as others held his feet. When he located a hole, he reached in and felt a big flathead chomp down on his hand.

He grabbed the catfish by the lip, pulled it out of the hole, then wrapped his legs around it. He got help from his friends in subduing the big fish, then celebrated his catch.

The flathead was later weighed at 69 pounds, 9 ounces — the biggest taken in the tournament.

“That fish twisted my thumb real bad, but that’s part of it,” Webb said. “When you’re a noodler, you expect to get knocked around a little bit.”

The win was especially satisfying for Webb. He comes from a long line of noodlers, and his father, Gary, was along for the fishing, even though he is in poor health.

Gary Webb was awarded a lifetime achievement award for his support of hand fishing and efforts to get it legalized in other states. He was a key player in getting Texas to approve noodling. And he has long lobbied the Missouri Department of Conservation to accept hand fishing in his home state.

But the agency has rejected those efforts, arguing that noodling’s high success rate in removing large catfish from their nests could have a major impact on the population.

So for the time being, the Webbs and other Missourians have to travel to neighboring states such as Oklahoma, Kansas or Illinois, where noodling is legal.

Ramey Webb said almost 25 family members and friends traveled to the town of Pauls Valley, an hour south of Oklahoma City, for the annual noodling tournament. They celebrated a sport that has gained popularity since documentaries and reality series were aired starting in the early 2000s.

For Gary Webb, that following is gratifying. He is 70 years old and he has been noodling with family since he was 7.

“Every fish is different,” Webb said. “They have different personalities.

“Some of them are just downright mean. I remember going into a hole after one fish, missing him and getting turned around. That fish charged out of that hole and took a bite out of my hindquarters that hurt like crazy.

“That might sound like a fish story, but I still have the scars.”

Gary Webb knows his noodling days are numbered, but he takes heart in the fact that his son and others will carry on the family tradition.

“My daughter (Claudia) took a 71-pound flathead noodling,” he said. “It’s just something our family does.”

To reach outdoors editor Brent Frazee, call 816-234-4319 or send email to bfrazee@kcstar.com.

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