Mark Spitzer loves fish and he loves to fish. As a nationally known author (Seasons of the Gar, Return of the Gar), writing about fish and their issues is what he does best. In this blog series, Spitzer shares his experiences traveling the American West while researching a select number of freshwater fish that are often considered monstrous or freaky or hideously grotesque. Don’t miss the full version of this incredible tale, which can be found in Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West (heading downstream in 2017).
Most people who’ve ever thought about noodling make statements like, “Diving into a cave and sticking my hand down some catfish’s throat? That’s something I’ll never do!” I used to say that as well, but I knew it would be a selling point for Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West if I investigated this popular phenomenon. So I practiced holding my breath, entered the 2014 Okie Noodling Tournament, and hired celebrity noodler Skipper Bivins to be my guide. With a professional photographer in tow, we set out through the trotlines and jagged stumps and it wasn’t long before I was using myself as bait. They clamped on, so did I, and I eventually hauled six fighting-mad cats from their dens. The first three were blues, ranging from two to twenty pounds, and the last two were flatheads, both thirty pounds.
The scars these fish left on my hands, however, were nothing compared to what I witnessed in Paul’s Valley when the fish started pouring in. There were forty-pounders, fifty-pounders, sixty-pounders, and the biggest was a monster seventy-pound behemoth. But like alligator gar, these flatties used to get a lot bigger, sometimes surpassing 150 pounds. And that’s the rub.
So as children competed in a fried-catfish-eating contest, and as “the Bare Knuckled Babes” flaunted copies of their barely-clad calendars, and as mass beer gurgled into esophagi and kids jumped around in bouncy castles, I found it hard to just go with the whole county-fair-type atmosphere. In essence, I had seen the belly of the beast, the underside of hand-fishing, and it was not an environmentally sustainable vision. But I’ll let that chapter speak for itself when the book comes out.