The Shell station is off exit 212. The sign says Wewoka, but the landscape says Joad: Okie to the core, low, undulating hills shot through with barbed wire and the dry washes of old erosion. Turn off the color in your head and it is Margaret Bourke-White. Turn the color on, and it is Central Oklahoma in 100 degree heat, tawny grass, low green trees, the occasional Indian casino, and rivers that in a drought are sandbars bordering trickles of water.
"You can take the front," Logan says. The windshield of this pickup truck has two long cracks forming an unsteadily drawn right angle at the lower corner of the driver's side. The plastic on the passenger side dash is split like drying, caked mud. There are plastic antifreeze jugs and work helmets in the floorboards.
I try to put my drink in the cupholder. It is full of small arms ammunition.
It is 8:30 a.m. at exit 212. We are going noodling.
"This is where there was a big pileup in the ice storm. Twelve cars. That's what the flowers are for."
A small cluster of memorial flowers wiggles in the blast furnace winds coming off passing traffic. Stopping on the side of a highway and just hopping out does not seem like a good idea, but Nathan Williams doesn't care. There's a hole underneath the bridge, he says. He's not sure about it, but it's early and he wants to try the risky holes before hitting his money spots later on in the day.
The Pauls Valley Okie Noodling Contest is today, the Oklahoma land rush of fishing contests, a 24 hour race to find the biggest catfish, stick your hand in its hole, and then pull it out using your hands, feet, or any other body part you care to shove in its snapping mouth. That explains hopping the barbed wire fence, and the trek across a field, and another field, and then following the 24-year-old through a bank of rushes and reeds so thick he disappears six feet from me.
"Whose field is this?" I ask. "It might be leased to this guy," Logan says. Dillon, Nathan's primary partner, says he doesn't know. John, another noodler walking along, says "naw, it's this guy, but he might have leased it." There's some more discussion as we start walking up the river. No one seems to know exactly whose land it is in the end, though everyone waves to a tree-mounted security camera along the fringe of vegetation bordering the river.
"Probably out of batteries. They usually are." John smiles as he says this.
With no hills or tall trees to obscure the dawn, the sunrise is godlike. In a city it's a dingy orange fluorescent bulb obscured by buildings and pollution, but here the sun is a ball of pure hellfire visibly rolling upward in the sky.
Nate and Logan start sweeping the riverbank for holes. Freshwater catfish spawn in these holes. The female digs out a hole and cleans it, laying her eggs and waits for a male to fertilize the eggs. He does, and after some defense of the nest he mutters something about going out for cigarettes and leaves forever.
Holes are holes are holes. Other things can live in them, unpleasant and hostile things. Snakes are one concern, but the real dread kicks in when Logan, the pickup truck driver with a cupholder full of ammo, a bandana around his head, long outdoor music festival hair, and the kind of rich perma-tan you only get from years of fishing and hunting outdoors while drinking Bud Light, goes under the water to check a hole. The crown of his head disappears, bubbles float up, and he's gone from sight. Nate watches intently.
Noodlers do this frequently and in either direction depending on the hole, jamming arms, feet, and sometimes other noodlers into the darkness underwater. The other day, Nate says, he had the slender Dillon go into a hole, then had Logan push Dillon down and then follow him into the hole, and then went under himself to form the anchor for a three man chain digging out what was easily a 15 foot, three foot wide hole in the bank. All for a piddling 25 pounder, too. Dillon shrugs when he talks about being the deepest, most at-risk link in the noodling chain. "They had to talk me into that one for a while."
Logan surfaces slowly. His expression is of a kid who just stuck a fork into a socket and got away with just a hint of arm-numbing high voltage. He backs away from the hole slowly.
"Beaver," he says. "I grabbed his front paw. He didn't move."
We're moving across another field of indeterminate ownership, and into another wide sandy river. Nate spots a piece of drainage pipe half buried in the sand. Giant catfish are aquatic claimjumpers, usurping whatever kingdoms other river-dwellers leave open for the taking, and Nate sees prime real estate in the wide, round mouth of the pipe. He lays down on his belly in the shallow water, only his sunburned face and sandy hair sticking out from the river.
"Want this one?"
Sticking your hand into the hole is the worst part. Your brain is thoroughly against the idea. People who stick their hands into holes don't get them back in your brain's darkest corners, but noodling goes a step further. It asks you to stay completely calm after being bitten, and not do what you desperately want to do--run screaming away from the thing that just bit you. Instead, you are supposed to get closer, and then put more of your hand into the fish's mouth and gills. If it's a monster, you might have to put your whole arm in and link your hands, the fish equivalent of someone putting one hand up your nose, another down your throat, and pulling you along by the entire facial apparatus.
This will not be necessary here. I put my hand in and feel the taut, slimy, and corpse-clammy side of a smallish catfish. He or she is, for lack of a better word, just chillin' in the hole.
Nate has his hand on the tail, blocking out the right side. Teamwork is essential. Holes are often huge, bigger than your imagination is probably comfortable with existing for things that live in dark, underwater lairs. You need blockers to stop up the hole, or to pull you out if you dive into the hole up to your ankles, or to grab the fish when it starts spinning on your arm and taking its fine, sandpapery teeth to your arm like a dull router set on high speed.
"He's pretty relaxed. You're gonna have to put your thumbs in its mouth."
My thumbs find the mouth, a hard trap that springs open like the hinges of a snare. The fish twitches.
"So, just pull him up?"
Nate nods. "Yup."
I pull up a perfectly docile juvenile catfish, somewhere between five pounds (Nate's estimate) and 10 (mine, and I stick to it because the camera that captured this is now on the bottom of the river, and most likely inside a giant vengeful catfish). I'm laughing, the only real reaction to standing in the middle of a river with a fish stuck to your hand, and the insulted fish thrashes off my thumbs and back into the water.
Nate has his hand on the catfish's head. He's positively ursine, with the body of a small high school defensive tackle, and with his paw on the catfish's head it is not going anywhere quickly. He looks up at Logan and Dillon.
"Oh, he wants to bite me. He does. Get the stringer."
Blockers assemble. Nate dips his shoulder down. If he flinched when the fish bit him, it was imperceptible. Logan has to ask him if the fish is on his arm, which it is, and that is why he's flinching now since the fish is twisting and stripping a bracelet of skin off Nate's forearm.
"He's hurtin' me. Let's go."
There is only an implication of its size: the swell of water rising each time it thrashes. Nate says it's big, probably 50 pounds just guessing by the size of the head, a solid anchor for the three fish stringer he hopes to take to Pauls Valley. The stringer finds its way through the fish's jaw, and Nate turns it loose.
A green, mottled form tosses itself out of the water. It is four feet long, and the color of mossy river stone, a green, gray, and black torpedo with a giant crowbar point for a head. Smaller fish in the 30 to 40 pound range can perform some decent aerials, but the 50 pounder looks more like a nuclear sub breaching the surface, rolling a few times and frothing up the water before settling onto the leader like an obedient basset hound.
"Time for you to walk the dog," Nate says, handing me the lead.
The catfish, wall-eyed and docile, waits at the end of the stringer. I name him Earl, because he looks like an Earl, and I walk him back down the river to the truck like a retiree leading their ancient pound dog around the lake in the morning.
Big Earl and I have a long conversation.
"A huge hand came into my house. I bit it. Wouldn't you?"
"I dunno, man. I'd probably say something like, 'Whoa, that's probably a sign I've been drinking too much.'"
"Maybe. But I bite things. My emotional range is limited."
"I know some people like that. It's cool."
"I was just protecting the nest, and now I'm being pulled out of the river, and into a tub where I'll sit for hours while you haul me around in a pickup truck. Then I'll get toted from Shawnee to Wewoka to Prague and god knows where else while you shove other fish in this tank with me, and then I'll be pulled out by my jaw to be weighed, and then maybe--MAYBE--you guys will let me live before dropping me off like a zillion miles from home."
"That sounds about right."
"I hurt no one. I don't deserve this."
"Wait. You'll slaughter a whole school of carp babies for lunch, right?"
"Oh, totally. It's the BEST. Especially if there are hundreds of them. You can just cram your mouth full of them, oh God they're so delicious. They taste so much better when they're afraid--"
"So, there. Circle of life. We're all in the food chain."
"Who eats you, then?"
"Bank of America. Cancer. Saturated fats. Home accidents."
"Do they believe in catch and release?"
"No. No, they do not."
"Hey, if you do throw someone in the tank with me, do me a favor. No vegan catfish. They never shut up about pond scum as a meat substitute."
"And if you catch my ex, seriously, don't put her in the tank. I left her with, like, a million babies."
"I'm not a giver. She knows that."
We check out two more holes. The sun starts to nose toward the horizon. The weigh-in is in Pauls Valley, and we are an hour and 15 minutes away, sprinting across a field of soybeans with a Dutch camera crew there to film a pair of Euro-wacky documentarians doing an "authentic and relevant" tour of America. One is carrying a 35-pounder Nate pulled from a riverbank, and he is hauling ass, his partner and camera crew struggling and wailing in Dutch behind him. The light has turned reddish, and bright yellow and green grasshoppers explode clacking and whirring out of the earth. A halo of yellowish-red dust mozies up and over the treeline.
It is fearsomely beautiful, even with the Dutch cameraman laying in the dust clutching his ankle swearing unspeakable oaths each containing a thousand vowels. Logan and I stop to pick him up expecting a compound fracture, but he only has a sprained ankle, and will not have to be shot in the field. I get back in Logan's truck. It's done well today. Earlier this week it caught fire while Logan and Nathan scouted holes for the tournament, but there's been only ominous smoke pouring out from under the hood.
I realize that in the the flight out of the last hole I have lost my camera. It's a miracle it didn't happen sooner. It could have been the ATV ride out of there, hanging on the back of the sputtering four-wheeler as it went over sand dunes or through the river itself. It could have happened clambering out of the river and up the ten-foot banks, or as I ran across the fields, or when we hopped any one of the barbed wire fences climbed on the day.
For a second I consider throwing myself headfirst out of the truck, but then remember that the best fishing stories always involve lost pictures and shoddy documentation. Nate has this weird noodler-in-heat eye going on, and he's throwing the last fish into the tank and before the Dutch camera crew can ask for another staged scene of noodling dialogue or scene-setting, the truck is spitting gravel and bouncing off the ruts in the road toward Paul's Valley. If the lost Dutch guys want to follow us, there's GPS, and if it fails they can follow the trail of dust we're kicking up in the dying light of late afternoon. One hundred and fifty pounds of angry, slowly suffocating fish lolling in a holding tank wait for no man.
Every gigantic truck in the world made babies with other gigantic trucks, and then those giant truck babies all grew up and lined up in Paul's Valley, Oklahoma. Ford F-350 is considered a compact car here. Someone has a Chevrolet Kodiak. One person has a Toyota, and i assume they are an outcast in their own homes and are not spoken to even by close family members.
The line of trucks growls ten deep down the road next to the outdoor amphitheater. The weigh-in is a full-fledged town carnival, with bouncy houses, inflatable slides, funnel cake stands, food trucks, and a giant trailered fishtank with plexiglas sides where tatted-up noodlers hold monster catfish over the side for kids to squeal over and touch.
There's beer everywhere; by 7:00 p.m., when noodlers were cut off and the competition declared closed, the garbage cans were overflowing with crushed cans of Bud Light. A shirtless man with a vermillion all-over sunburn and a woman in cutoff jean shorts, cowboy boots, and an American flag bikini top walk past us as we wait for the weigh-in. This couple in different forms walks past us no fewer than 100 times while we wait.
The announcer takes the stage and introduces a husky man in a white t-shirt.
"This is the man who, just last week, got noodling legalized in Texas."
The crowd emits a low, approving "WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"
Nate is impatient. He's wearing the same shorts he's had on all day, rolling around in mud and water suffused with agricultural runoff. His arms are a tragedy of pinkish-red abrasions and deep red lacerations. His legs are worse: a catfish bite from the 46-pounder that died on him overnight from Friday's fishing has wrapped his ankle in a sick purplish ring, the same fight in a submerged car body where he slashed the back of his heel in the struggle. A gruesome spot on his forearm might be infected. His toes are shredded. He needs Bactine, a thousand Band-Aids, and a shower.
The announcer calls out Nate's name as the second place finisher. Another noodler caught a 60-pounder, more than enough to put him over the top with even an average haul on the other two fish, and more than enough to put him first in the overall competition. He gets $1,000 and a trophy. Nate will get second, and would have had first if he hadn't lost that fish overnight on Friday. He gets $400, a smaller trophy, and the freedom to drive an hour and a half home with some kind of victory. Pictures are taken; fish are recovered from the general holding pool and re-tanked for catch and release. Big Earl, my river dog, will swim free in the wild again.
Almost immediately after the trophy ceremony, things fall apart.
"We need a policeman on stage."
Some pent-up drunkenness grips the crowd all at once. Even fewer people are wearing shirts now. One of them dances with a woman easily 30 years his senior in front of us. The wind blows hard and somehow makes the heat worse, turning what had been a slow-roaster into a convection oven. People are leaving, but other people are arriving, people without regard for category or social cohesion, turning the scene into a swirling mix of bikers, misplaced hipsters from Norman and Tulsa gawking at the hoi-polloi, guys in tank tops clearly out to bury their knuckles in someone's face that night, Native Americans in jeans despite the heat, actual cowboys with handlebar mustaches and short sleeve button-downs with massive biceps and brisket guts.
"There is a lost child up here. [Cop holds up kid] Please come and get him if you recognize him. He needs his mama and daddy."
A fight breaks out somewhere to our left. I don't see it, but I can hear it, and see the two policemen running from my right to left, reaching down on their belts for tasers as they move toward the unseen fracas. No fewer than ten people trail them as they run, giddily hoping to see something resembling violence. For some reason a gay guy in a pink tank top and short shorts has turned out. He is the bravest or stupidest person here.
"There is a woman who is unresponsive by the port-o-lets. She is wearing a t-shirt that says 'HOW BIG IS YOUR NOODLE.' Please come and get her if you know her."
The Dutch camera crew is here, but they're busy fighting off arrest by an Oklahoma Fish and Wildlife Officer bent on punishing them for fishing without a license, something that did not get better when one of the crew, either joking or terrified by a short shitheel of a petty authority figure, ran during the interrogation and jumped a fence into the adjacent high school football field.
"Please thank PBR for everything they did to make this event possible."
Nate named his youngest son Fierce. The two-month-old is sitting in his carrier calm, wide-eyed, and more composed than any adult within 500 yards despite the cacophony of butt-rock booming over the speakers and the screechy tune-ups of the band preparing to close out the festival. He has his mother's Native American features, and sits placidly on his aunt's chest surveying the chaos. He stares a hole through me.
The band leader, a knockoff brand Ryan Adams, steps to the mike. It howls with feedback, a keening, ear-splitting whine. He smiles.
"Y'all having fun out there?"
Photos by Nathan Williams and Spencer Hall.