Animal Planet’s “Hillbilly Handfishin’” is a noodler’s delight

By Stacey Harrison

If Skipper Bivins or Trent Jackson ever ask you to go fishing, it’s best to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Literally, that would be a river with only your bare hands to help you. Bivins and Jackson are expert noodlers, or hand-fishers, who run a business that takes adventure-seekers — usually city folk and suburbanites — out on the water for a unique wilderness thrill. Animal Planet follows their exploits in Hillbilly Handfishin’, a 12-part series airing Sundays at 10pm.

We spoke with the duo to learn a little more about noodling, and why they’re so passionate about it:

Let’s start with the obvious question. What’s the attraction of noodling?

Skipper Bivins: I suppose it’s the adrenaline rush more than anything. You might compare it to a snakebite, only you usually see a snake. You can’t see a fish. He’s underwater. It’s a bite that’s coming out of the dark, but you don’t know when it’s coming, or how big the fish is and how hard he’s going to bite. When it hits you it’s a total surprise. It really makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

But we use it for quiet time as well. We get out on the river and let the river take us somewhere, enjoy a day with family. It’s a great family sport, where everybody can get out and enjoy the water and enjoy the sun and the sand and have a blast.

Part of the thrill has to be the danger involved. Have you had a lot of close calls?

Bivins: You’re always having close calls. We always have a snake watcher out front looking at snakes. The snakes actually live in the same waters that we are noodling to catch fish. Even before the business, we’ve been taking people and getting them bit for as long as we’ve been going. It’s just something you never get tired of, seeing a grown man scream underwater or seeing his eyes bulge out, or you’re helping get in the hole and you’ve got your hand on the back to steady them to keep them from coming out and you literally can feel their heart pounding. It’s really a neat experience just to watch other people.

What’s the experience been like doing the show?

Bivins: There’s been more to it than we expected. It’s been a whole lot of work, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience meeting people from around the world and seeing actually how much actually in common we do have. First opinions are often wrong.

Jackson: I personally have not laughed this much since I was a young child. You just have to be here. The comedy is all natural, but I promise you I’ve not laughed this much … I don’t think I’ve ever laughed this much. We’ve seen things that are unbelievable. It’s very comical.

Where did the term “noodling” come from?

Bivins: It’s known by different names in different locales, but we’ve always known it by “grabbling” here. I can only guess as to why it’s called noodling. We’ve Googled it and really nobody knows, but a fish underwater is really slick and really slimy and tends to feel like if you’re boiling spaghetti in a pot and you leave it too long and how slick and slimy it gets. [A fish] has the same feel to it.

Noodling is something that gets passed down from generation to generation. Why is it important to you to make sure it keeps going?

Bivins: I suppose it’s like anything, even in a craft. You have one father who’s a carpenter, a son that’s a carpenter and a grandson that’s a carpenter. Same with firemen. It just goes generation after generation. Our fathers and friends were raised basically in the wilderness, and primarily they noodled to put fish on the table, first and foremost. Of course, they had so much fun while they done it, it actually becomes quite addicting. Once you’ve been bitten, you can never get enough.

Jackson: It’s also a good way to get out of work. When we were working out in the field it was so hot, and we’d go jump in the creek and the only way you can justify that is by bringing home a wild fish for supper. The women get pretty mad if you’re not out there working.

Noodling is getting a fair amount of media attention these days, and with that comes the inevitable misconceptions that people develop. What do you think people, in general, get wrong about noodling?

Bivins: I’m sure there are misconceptions, because like I said it’s almost as if you’re watching a magician’s trick. You’re underwater and they can’t see and there’s a certain allure to the mystique of it. There are a lot of people that can noodle, but all of them obviously can’t noodle correctly. I think that we have honed the sport to a fine edge.

You’ve used the term “sport” a couple times. What makes noodling a sport, and not just an activity?

Bivins: It very much is a sport in the fact that it takes a great deal of expertise and skill to catch one of these fish, especially in the open water. Most people that have noodled their whole life in rocks and holes, you get them into the open water and they can’t even feel a fish. We may catch 200 pounds of fish in a day and they’re just besides themselves. As for being a sport, yes I think it is, but I prefer to think of it as a way of life. It’s not for everyone.

Jackson: Grabbling is a sport. We’ve grown up with it since we were a small child, we’ve been groomed for it. There are some dangers, but there is a lot of fun. People shouldn’t go out by themselves and start doing this. Skipper makes it look a lot easier than it actually is.

There are many states where noodling isn’t legal. What are your thoughts on why it would be banned?

Bivins: I believe it’s just due to misgivings and misinformation. Missouri itself actually did a test*, and the state ran the test where they tagged over 5,000 fish and in the end result noodlers caught only one fish. There are only a few people noodling, whereas hook fisherman, there’s thousands of them that fish with hooks year-round, 24/7. A noodler only has a short period, basically from about June through August where he can actually go out and the water is the right temperature. In my opinion, noodling has absolutely zero effect upon how many fish there are. The only thing that determines how many fish we have is how much water we get.

(*Author’s Note: Here is the Missouri Department of Conservation’s official explanation for maintaining its ban noodling, which has been in effect since 1919. The study Bivins is most likely referring to is from 2007 when the state ended an experimental handfishing season early because too many fish were being caught. But of the 646 tagged fish that had been caught, only one was from noodling. Read more about it here.)

Do you ever do any rod-and-reel fishing?

Bivins: Yeah, we kind of call that senior citizen fishing. Once you’ve felt a fish on your foot or on your hand, it’s really hard to hold a rod. But we do go occasionally if we’re really, really bored and it’s out of season for noodling. We’ll go sit and throw a pole in now and then.

Photo: Credit: Animal Planet