L ance W. Lowery of Mt. Vernon and Mike Williams of Sulphur Springs have wrestled with dozens of fat cats since they began noodling for the piscatorial titans several years ago. They’ve won a bunch of the battles. Not surprisingly, they have lost a few of them, too.
“Sometimes there just isn’t anything you can do,” says Lowery. “These fish get big, and they are powerful. Sometimes they blow right past you down there or they just get loose. I think of them like a NFL linebacker. If they hit you in the chest, you’re not going to stop them. Everything has to go just right to make it happen, and even then, there are no guarantees. A lot can go wrong down there.”
Noodling is sometimes called grappling or just plain ol’ hand fishing. It’s primitive fishing in its purest form. It involves sticking your hands or feet into underwater washouts, stump cavities, beneath concrete boat ramps or any other place where a big catfish might take refuge to spawn.
Big flathead and blue catfish are extremely territorial and protective of their spawning dens, so much that they will attack anything that invades their space. That’s the idea behind noodling—to provoke the fish into clamping down on a gloved hand so you can yank it out of the spawning den and ultimately wrestle it back to the boat.
The tactic can produce fish throughout the warm weather months, but hardcore noodlers such as Lowery and Williams know late spring through early summer are the best times to find heavyweight flatheads and blues hunkered down in dark, cozy places were the sun doesn’t shine.
The two anglers were having a good time noodling on an undisclosed lake last July when their day suddenly got better. They were competing in a 24-hour Northeast Texas Noodling Championship, an organized competition that allows contestants to fish any Texas public lake. Teams were allowed to bring three live fish to the designated weigh-in site at Lake Fork Resort near Alba.
The anglers, who call themselves “Team Bite Me,” had already landed several big fish, including a 63 pounder, when they motored to another sweet spot marked on their GPS unit. The spot consists of a large underwater stump away from the bank, in the mouth of a cove, in about eight feet of water. They knew the stump held some promise because they had snatched some fat cats there before.
The two men anchored the boat and descended on the stump as a team. Lowery was the first man down and placed his hand and arm into the hole where it was too dark to see.
“I didn’t feel anything—no fish, nothing,” Lowery recalled. “At first I thought the hole was empty, but we decided to check it again.”
On the second dive, Lowery said he placed his foot and leg inside the cavity. That’s when the big fish bit.
“She hit me hard,” Lowery recalled. “The fish swallowed my shoe and had its lips wrapped around the lower part of my calf. It happens like that a lot with those big op (flatheads). They’ll bite and hold on, whereas a big blue cat will bite you several times and then let go.”
At that point, the teamwork and technique rehearsed dozens of times since the two men began noodling together six years ago, paid off once again.
“Mike was right there beside me, so he knew exactly what had happened,” Lowery said. “When the fish grabbed my foot, I pulled it out of the hole, and we both grabbed it. Once my foot was free we pulled its head up into my belly and I wrapped my leg around it. Then we brought it to the surface.”
The anglers hoisted the fish onto a scale, and it weighed 81 pounds. At that point, they tied the fish off to an underwater stump and continued checking different spots until it was time to head to the tournament weigh-in.
Williams said the big fish didn’t appear to doing very well when they went back to retrieve it, so they elected to release it rather than risk killing it. The angler said the cat’s color wasn’t good and it was acting somewhat fatigued.
“It’s really hard to keep these big fish alive sometimes, especially when the water temperatures get up around 90 degrees,” Williams said. “We already had three big fish, so we figured we were in pretty good shape, anyway. It’s just not worth it to us to risk killing one if we can help it. We’d rather release them so we can catch them again.”
The anglers’ strategy played out perfectly. The combined weight of their three cats totaled 148.3 pounds and earned them the NETX championship title for the fourth consecutive year.
Lowery and Williams, both 45, make an interesting team.
Lowery is an insurance salesman from Mount Pleasant. Williams is a movie star of sorts who feels lucky to be alive. Williams was the chief electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon, a massive offshore oil drilling rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 crewmen and resulting in the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters.
Williams survived the incident by jumping 10 stories off the rig into a burning ocean littered with oil, grease and diesel. The disaster inspired the creation of the blockbuster movie, “Deepwater Horizon,” which was released in theaters across America last fall.
Directed by Peter Berg, the movie was created around a $150,000,000 budget and features a long list of well-known talent. Williams’s character was portrayed by Mark Wahlberg.
Lowery said he met Williams through a mutual friend roughly 11 years ago, and they have been fishing and hunting together ever since. Both men are hardcore archers during the fall, but come spring their attention turns to the whiskered denizens of the deep.
“It’s an absolute adrenaline rush,” Lowery said. “For us it’s the same feeling we get when a 250- to 300-pound boar comes in on you at night. You can’t see him, but you can smell him, and you can hear him popping his jaws. You feel like your heart is about to explode. We get that same feeling when we’re noodling. It’s truly amazing.”
Email Matt Williams at
Email Matt Williams at [email protected]