Noodling earns filmmaker's fascination

Film cost about $40,000

Brad Beesley spends his spare time in rural Oklahoma prowling out-of-the-way bars and bait shops for fishermen bragging of their exploits.

He's not interested in just any fishing. He wants to find people who "noodle."

They catch fish by hand. No rod, no reel, no hooks, no bait.

The angler stands in neck-deep water, grabs a breath of air, goes under and reaches beneath a rock or into a recess along a steep bank to find a fish � preferably a catfish. He sticks his fingers into what he hopes is the mouth of a fish, grabs hold and wrestles it out of the water.

Beesley thinks the fishermen's stories and unique culture rate a movie.

"Okie Noodling" will be the third documentary film for Beesley and his brother, Paul. The idea arose at a family reunion when Beesley cousins shared their amazing tales of catching fish by hand and proudly displayed their scars, he said.

He knew noodling would make an excellent film topic, but finding other noodlers proved difficult.

"We started putting up fliers in small bait shops in rural areas around Oklahoma asking noodlers to contact us," says James Payne, one of the volunteers working with the Beesleys. "It has taken years to break into this group because many just don't want to talk to outsiders or are afraid to let others know about their favorite fishing holes."

Filming has shifted into high gear, following noodlers in action all around the state. One Saturday evening finds the crew in Pauls Valley, where a noodling contest weigh-in is producing large catfish and tall tales.

Tim Suchy, a Norman firefighter, waits to see if the almost 51-pound catfish he's pulled from Lake Eufaula might be the winner.

Suchy, whose father taught him to noodle at age 10, does it two to three times a week.

"With noodling there are no guarantees. It makes it exciting when you never know what you're going to come out with," Suchy says. "Some have the heart for it and some don't. You just have to be able to hold your breath and sink into the water."

Bryan Hendricks, public information officer for the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Department, says part of noodling's excitement is the unknown.

"When you stick your hand in there, you don't know if it's a fish, snapping turtle or a beaver. If it's a beaver, then it can get really ugly," Hendricks says.

"Beavers have teeth and they don't like being grabbed. And nobody in their right mind would stick their hand in snapping turtle habitat.

The bony plate that encircles the catfish's mouth is raspy and abrasive.

"One good pass and it will take the skin right off their hands," Hendricks says.

Suchy has needed stitches to close some noodling wounds.

Beesley estimates "Okie Noodling" will cost about $40,000 to make. The moviemakers have filmed from 30 to 40 hours of 16mm and video footage and need about 50 hours total before the rough editing begins.

Beesley, who earned his degree in film studies from the University of Oklahoma in 1994, recently completed the documentary "Hill Stomp Hollar." It explores gutbucket blues, punk rock and the economic hardships of Mississippi sharecropping. The film won awards at the South by Southwest Film Festival and the Great Plains Film Festival.

In February, Beesley released "Jacksonville," a chronicle of homeless Vietnam veterans who gather in a corner of Oklahoma City by that name.


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