As a sometime – if mostly unsuccessful – fisherman, I have spent hours in my boat casting and reeling in lures of all shapes and sizes. I have caught more branches and weeds than fish and have probably caused enough dermal cells to mutate their DNA to give me skin cancer of all types. But recently, while watching River Monsters on Animal Planet, I learned what I have been doing all wrong when it comes to my fishing. I’ve been using the wrong bait.
I’ll get back to bait in a minute, but for those who don’t know, River Monsters features “biologist and extreme angler” Jeremy Wade, who travels the world looking for the most aggressive and dangerous man-eating fish in the world’s rivers. He does this invariably from a canoe the approximate size and shape of a #2 pencil, only not as seaworthy. He goes places like The Congo, Brazil, India, and Oklahoma to investigate tales of gore, always to finally land the big one just after the last commercial.
After watching my first episode of this show, I said to myself, my wife, my kids, and anyone in my zip code, “OH MY GOD! I’m never going swimming in anything but my cement pond ever again!” Don’t watch this show before bed. One of the grossest shows was when our intrepid angler, Jeremy – a 50-something Brit from Southeast England – traveled to New Zealand to catch lampreys, disgusting snake-like fish. This episode would have sent Indiana Jones running to the comparatively safe embrace of the Nazis.
In another episode Jeremy was in Indonesia hunting a fish the locals call – I swear I am not making this up – the “ball breaker”. Apparently, this diminutive fish likes to swim up someone’s drawers and bite the unsuspecting man’s testicles, which by all reliable accounts at least, are just sort of hanging there minding their own business when the attacks occur. Jeremy researched this phenomenon and found that the testicles in question were pretty average, as gonads go, and not behaving threateningly in any way. The perps, it turned out, were non-native and heretofore vegetarian pacu fish from South America. Seems that someone in Indonesia had the marvelous idea it would be perfect habitat for the pacu, which could then serve as an important food source for the villages. Turns out that the rivers there aren’t as fertile as those in the Amazon basin and the pacu needed to turn to eating mountain oysters to survive. As the pacu’s normal diet consists of nuts, their jaws are very adapted to crushing tree nuts when they fall into the water. Since the human variety lack the hard shell of those found in trees, apparently the pacu have decided amongst themselves that the new diet plan not only tastes great, it’s a great source of protein, and also saves on expensive piscine dental work. Evolution in action.
Jeremy Wade is my hero. Not only does he always catch his fish, he’s just cool. Always has a 2 day growth of beard. Grey hair makes him look distinguished, not old. He camps out in awesome places risking attack from mosquitoes the size of Ping drivers and crocodiles that eat whole wildebeest as hors d’oeuvres. He’s got a British accent. He’s kind of a cross between James Bond and Tarzan. He is the real Most Interesting Man in the World. I bet he doesn’t always drink beer, but when he does it’s Dos Equis. The only thing that would make him cooler is if he was surrounded by River Monster Groupies, nubile 25 year olds (of every creed, race and colour) who pole dance for him every night by the campfire.
Anyway, back to bait. I was watching River Monsters the other day and Jeremy was in, brace yourself, Oklahoma. I shiver at the thought of him there. He’s been in some tough locales before, but Oklahoma? In the US of A; land of the free and home of the all night Wendy’s? I’m not sure the world is ready for what Jeremy might reel in from rivers full of rusted Buicks and Baptist preachers. (Note: never cast downstream to a group of folks getting’ baptized in a river. You never know what sins you might catch and you can never be too careful. Make sure your shots are current.)
Jeremy was in Oklahoma to catch flathead catfish. Flathead cats can grow to huge sizes with mouths vaguely reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, minus the teeth. I’ve caught lots of catfish over the years and it’s a form of fishing at which I have actually been rather successful, mostly because copious quantities of beer are involved.
But fishing with rod and reel were not how Jeremy Wade was going to catch these giant cats. He was goin’ “noodling”. Noodling involves catching fish with your hands. What you do is – and again, I SWEAR I am not making any of this up, is you go into the water – typically very muddy water with the visibility of chocolate milk – and reach your hands into a hole wherein a catfish may be residing. These holes are, get this, under actual water; sometimes deep enough to require you to take a breath and submerge your head in order to reach the cat’s lair. Then you try to get the fish pissed off enough to bite you, whereupon you grab it by the jaw and retrieve it from the hole. Very simple.
So let’s recap for a second: you wade into water that might be chest deep. You can’t see 6” into said water. For all you know, Jimmy Hoffa may be under there. You take a breath, hold it, and submerge your whole body into this swirling brown liquid. Then you stick your arm into a cavity, in order to provoke an attack by a fish that might weigh as much as your wife. When the fish bites your hand (these fish have been known to grab as far up as the elbow) you close your hand on whatever you can and pull the fish out.
Now, there are several important details to this technique. First, most of the people who practice it do (contrary to the obvious stereotypes) have actual day jobs. They’re Professional Tornado Witnesses for cable news networks. Second, since these flatheads can get over 100 lbs, you have to be very physically fit. Your champion noodlers field dress at no less than 250. They make offensive linemen look svelte. Third, no one has informed the catfish that you’re coming and to make sure other – non-target – species aren’t also home; such as water moccasins, muskrats, etc.
This whole idea begs one important question: “Are these people freaking crazy?!” I’ve spent countless hours fishing, but it has never once occurred to me to use myself as bait. Sticking your arm into a hole to catch a fish is like sticking your wiener into a light socket to test the voltage. Why Jeremy Wade even went into one large cavity head first!
After Jeremy and his partners had caught their fish, they placed them in plastic tanks of the variety used for watering cattle and drove them to – again, every word of this is true – the Last Chance Baptist church for a weigh in. I’m not sure what it is about Baptists that inspire this sort of behavior. I supposed the weigh in could have occurred at the local Presbyterian church, but this being Oklahoma, there weren’t any. Jeremy, of course, being a big TV star and all, was immediately recognized and caused a bit of commotion, as the town hadn’t had that big a celebrity appearance since Orel Roberts saw his 300’ Jesus. Maybe it was the ringer they brought in, but Jeremy and his partners won! You just can’t beat this kind of television.
Seriously? Has our country sunk so low? Are we so poor we can’t afford bait? There was a time when honest working-class American Red Necks would fish from actual boats; boats that cost more than the typical American home and (at full throttle) went faster than your typical NASCAR ride and were just as loud. And, by God, we used chicken livers for the purpose He intended them!
I don’t know about you, but the fact that giant man-eating fish live in God-fearing, Republican states such as Oklahoma worries me mightily. Fish like that need to live in places such as South Africa, Pakistan, and New York. And whatever you do, if you go, please don’t try to catch them by hand. Fish in those parts are undoubtedly armed.