For him, there’s nothing like landing a big catfish by hand

07/18/2014 8:05 PM

07/18/2014 8:05 PM

Toby Lawless has no trouble remembering the day he got hooked on noodling.

“One day my grandpa said, ‘Come on, we’re going fishing,’” said Lawless, who lives in Independence, Kan. “I told him I’d go get the rods and reels and he said, ‘We don’t need them.’

“At first, I couldn’t figured it out. But when we were out there, he got out of the boat in a shallow spot and he stuck one of his feet in a hole in the rocks. A big catfish bit down on his tennis shoe and it wedged in that fish’s mouth.

“My grandpa just slowly pulled his foot back, leading that fish right out of the hole. Then we pounced on it.”

Lawless, 31, says that was the day he was introduced to a whole different type of fishing. Though his grandfather has since passed away, Lawless carries on the family tradition of hand fishing.

He was one of a loyal group of noodlers who celebrated with the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission legalized the sport in 2007.

Today, the Kansas hand fishing season, for flatheads only, runs from June 15 through Aug. 31. It is allowed on all federal reservoirs (from 150 yards of the dam to the upper end of the federal property), the entire length of the Arkansas River, and the Kansas River from its origin to the confluence with the Missouri River. Hand fishermen must purchase a special permit, in addition to a Kansas fishing license.

Lawless knows he doesn’t have travel far from southeast Kansas to find excellent fishing. Elk City, Fall River and Big Hill reservoirs and the Elk River all contain huge catfish. In fact the world-record flathead, which weighed 123 pounds, was caught on rod and reel at Elk City Reservoir in 1998.

But when Lawless goes catfishing, he prefers to leave his rods and reels at home. He started a guide service, Elk River Adventures, last year, and he helps customers catch catfish a variety of ways — by hand, trotlines, limblines and juglines.

It’s the noodling that intrigues customers the most. He already has 21 bookings for guide trips this summer.

“People see some of the shows on TV and they want to try it,” Lawless said. “But some still are a little reluctant.

“It’s hard to convince yourself to put your hand back in a a dark hole, get bit and not pull back right away. You have to leave your hand in there so the catfish can clamp down.

“That’s when the fun starts.”

Lawless, who labels himself as “an insurance inspector by day, a noodler later in the day,” has taken some huge flatheads by hand. The murky, shallow water of southeast Kansas is perfect for noodlers, he says.

“Elk City Reservoir is probably the best,” he said. “It has big rocks, shelves, and ledges that the flatheads can get in behind.

“The holes are usually on the backside of those areas because the flatheads don’t want to expose their eggs to the waves. That’s the first place we look.”

Lawless scoffs at the notion that hand fishermen can put a major dent in the flathead population.

“If you find five fish and catch two, you’ve done good,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s not as easy as it looks.

“Really, there aren’t a lot of us who do it. But I’m addicted.”

To reach Brent Frazee, The Star’s outdoors editor, call 816-234-4319 or send email to


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