Fishing Lines: Fancy a bite?Try catfish with noodles in the Deep South

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The Independent Online

The giveaway was Davey's stumpy index finger. Missing body parts are one of those things you don't like to ask about, but as soon as westarted talking about catfish, Davey was happy enough to tell me why his trigger digit was only an ind, not an index, finger.

"Snapping turtle," he said. "Them's a big problem when you're noodling." Turned out that many of his friends are missing a finger or two. One,he told me, is down to two fingers on his noodling arm.

"What's he going to do when he's lost them all?" I asked.

"Guess he'll just have to use the other hand," said Davey.

Those who watched this week's 'Caught Barehanded', a programme about the Okie Noodling Championships on the National Geographic channel, will have learnt something about the unusual art of catching catfish with yourhands and a deranged senseof daring. Who needs a fishing rod? This is caveman fishing, generally carried out by good ol' boys (though women do it too) in states such as Oklahoma, Louisiana and Mississippi.

For those with an overactive stupidity gland, here's how it works. You wade into a likely spot, reach underwater (some even dive down) and start feeling for holes in the bank, logs and under rocks.

These are the sort of places where catfish (there are three main varieties in the US, and they all look like Jade Goody with whiskers) lay their eggs when spawning.

When a female has done her stuff, a male catfish moves in to guard the eggs. Say what you like about catfish, but they make good dads. If you stick your hand in when he's on nest watch, he'll bite you. And that's just what a noodler wants.

Instead of screaming: "Something bit me!" you letthe fish chomp on your hand. Then you just reach deep intoits mouth, grab the gill cover and heave.

That's easier than it sounds. For a start, it may not be a catfish at all but a turtle, whose jaws can easily nip off a finger, or a beaver. Could even bea snake.

Catfish themselves can do more than give you a nastysuck. They have small, needle-sharp teeth that will tear your skin and leave bloody tracks. Davey showed me his hunting arm. It looks like he's been self-harming rather than enjoying his chosen sport.

And hauling them out is not easy. These catfish can grow bigger than the star of Tim Burton's film 'Big Fish'. The largest blue catfish taken on rod and line weighed 124lb, while the record for the noodler's most common catch, the flathead, stands at 123lb. Being underwater and holding your breath with a 100lb catfish clamped to your arm could be distinctly unnerving. No wonder one of the participants in 'Caught Barehanded' described it as "like having a tornado on your fist".

By the way, it's considered wimpish to noodle with gloves. "And you cain't feel fer the fish proper," said Davey.

Outside the cities, catfish is eaten more often than chicken in many of the southern states, and pretty good they taste too. You can, of course, catch them with a rod and line. But you won't have the scars to prove it.