Where in the West is Mark Spitzer?

Mark Spitzer loves fish and he loves to fish. As a nationally known author (Seasons of the GarReturn 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 Westnow available!  

When I took part in the 2014 Okie Noodling Tournament, my buddy Rob Butler, a professional photographer in Seattle, came along and took pictures. Some of those photos appeared in Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West, but over a thousand didn’t make the cut. Ten, however, are getting their moment in the slimelight now. Chosen for what they say about the culture of this legendary annual contest, I picked these colorful flashes of Americana… well, for different reasons.

Figure 1 is a self-portrait by Rob with a wide-angle lens busting out in curvature, an effect I’ve always loved in his photographs. Photo by Rob Butler.
Figure 2 features local noodling queen Ginger Vitus plus a thirty-pound catfish and me. When you’re walking around with a monstro-cat at such an event, people are prone to photobomb you.   Photo by Rob Butler.
Figure 3 is of noodling celebrity Marion Kincaid from Nat Geo’s Mudcats. He and his entourage can be seen here working the crowd. Photo by Rob Butler.
Somewhere between the corndogs and Indian tacos, we ran into the subjects of Figure 4. Why some guy would bring a pet raccoon to a catfishing contest was never a question, because the Okie Noodling Tournament is a carnival in every traditional sense. Photo by Rob Butler.
Figure 5, on the other hand, gets to the nutmeat of the matter, which I address at the end of the chapter. It might seem fun to see kids noodling in a giant tank, but at what cost? And who pays the price? Photo by Rob Butler.
In Figure 6 we see a TV personality from a popular outdoors show nursing his cat-mangled hand while behind him, Heather Bivins (daughter of noodling star Skipper Bivins from Hillbilly Handfishin’), has no problem hogging up a fifty-pound cat. Photo by Rob Butler.
As Figure 7 shows, kids with catfish are a constant at the fest. More times than not, their expressions are portals into the cat-grabbling imagination. Photo by Rob Butler.
I like to think of Figure 8 as “Oklahoma Gothic.” Note the bloody hand, which I saw get shredded when he pulled that fish from its tank and it went into a furious death roll. Point being: hand-fishing and pain go hand in hand. Photo by Rob Butler.
As Figure 9 illustrates, the “Bare Knuckled Babes” are also a big draw, meant to sexy-up the show and sell mass calendars. Photo by Rob Butler.
Ultimately, as Figure 10 attests, our childlike fascination with the grotesque is something to celebrate. Still, there’s something we need to keep in check, because there’s more than just one species in the balance, and we need to be adults to conserve what we have left. Photo by Rob Butler.

Visit RJB Photo to see more of Rob’s Okie Noodling photos.

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