SHAWNEE, Okla. — Jerry Rider likes nothing better than to find big flathead catfish in the middle of snake-infested logjams, ram his hand down their throats and wrestle them to the surface.
"You almost have to lose your human instincts to do this," he said. "You're not a person anymore, you're just as much an animal as they are."
The sport, known as noodling in Oklahoma and grabbling or hand fishing in some other states, is defined by the Wildlife Department as the "taking of non-game fish only by the use of hands. . . . "
Rider, however, is not content with the shady river banks under which flathead catfish, or flatheads, like to lie.
Standing waist high in mud and water, he digs right into the nastiest, meanest mess of snake-infested logjams and brush piles he can locate on the Deep Fork River about 20 miles north of here.
He leaves no logjam unexplored. He goes through them, under them, sometimes he disassembles them log by log. And he often encounters snakes, beavers, snapping turtles and other denizens of the Deep Fork.
"There's not a thing in this river that's not more afraid of you than you are of it," Rider said.
"I'm not afraid of snakes; they're the least of my worries. . . . I catch them and make belts out of them," he said.
Not Known for Beauty
Many of Rider's favorite hunting grounds, which are formed when logs and brush accumulate in the bends of the river during periods of high water, have been there for years, collecting miscellaneous floating junk from points upstream. The Deep Fork is not known for its scenic beauty.
"There's a trick to catching fish in a brush pile. You might be right on top of a fish, but he can move all around you without you feeling him. I'll have my hands on nine fish for every one I catch."
Rider said he finds fish in the same places time after time. One particular pile of logs and debris once yielded 27 in a summer, including seven in a single day.
"Flatheads are funny," he said. "Sometimes they'll move real fast; sometimes you can pet them just like a dog: you can rub their belly, feel their tails, put your hand on their heads."
To catch one, he shoves his hand down its throat and grasps its gill plates while the fish chomps down on his wrist.
"You don't even know the fish is biting you," he said. "But those gill plates are like dozens of little razor blades. I've gotten 20 cuts on my hand from one fish."
The largest flathead he's ever caught, he said, was a 52-pounder, and he adds that he got two others weighing 35 and 15 pounds from the same hole.
"Blood was dripping off my fingers when I got through that day," he recalled.
Beavers Present Problem
In years of noodling the Deep Fork north of Shawnee, about 40 miles east of Oklahoma City, Rider said he has seen only two poisonous cottonmouth snakes. Beavers are more of a concern; the animals can bite through a man's arm like it was a sapling.
"Last year, I felt five beavers," he said. "That's why I don't wear gloves. I've got to have that sense of feel to know whether it's a beaver or a snake or a turtle. With gloves on, you may be holding onto a beaver, and he's going to take your finger off."
The industrious beavers are also responsible for what Rider has found to be the most dangerous aspect of noodling.
"Beavers will tunnel into a bank and the current will run into that hole at a pretty good clip," he said. "I got into one that almost sucked me in. I was holding onto the bank and grabbing roots and everything else trying to keep from going into that hole.
Slithering through the mud of the Deep Fork doesn't appeal to many people, including other noodlers, but Rider has been doing it since he was a boy.
"It's close to home and there's big catfish in that river," he said. "I've come up here and caught more fish in 30 minutes with my hands than people with a rod and reel who sit there all day long."