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Using the old noodle: catching catfish by hand

Mike Leggett, Commentary

Staff Writer
Austin 360

I've loved river rats since I was a boy.

They always were snatching big catfish out of the river. They never worried about snapping turtles in their holes or moccasins in their beds. Mosquitos never bothered them. And they could make a meal out of sardines and cream soda or catfish fillets and light bread.

They were smart, fearless. They were part of the outdoors, not just visitors.

So I asked my brother Tim to help me find one again. Someone who lives on the Sabine River between Texas and Louisiana. Someone who can help me read the water and be the river rat I'd fish with as one of my 24 Things Every Texan Should Do Before He Dies.

Tim called one night and in his slow, drawly voice said, "I got somebody for you to talk to. Here's Ronald Murdock."

"People call me Mud Duck," Murdock began, then launched into an itinerary that would take us down the Sabine for trotline and limb line fishing before hitting Toledo Bend.

"You ever been noodling for catfish?" he asked enthusiastically. I pointed out that noodling (catching catfish by hand) is illegal in Texas, and I'm a law-abiding guy. That, and I value my fingers.

"Oh, we go over to the Louisiana side," Mud Duck said. "We'll get you into some big old yella cats over there." He handed the phone back to my brother.

"Is that river rat enough for you?" Tim asked, laughing that beer-and-cigarettes, I've-worked-on-pipelines-my-whole-life laugh of his. "And he's got kids whose names are Duck Call and Camo."

I swear I started hearing the "Dueling Banjos" theme from "Deliverance" in my head.

"Yeah," I told my brother, "but if he shows up with a banjo, I'm not going."

We met near the Sabine River on the northern fringe of the Big Thicket and the Sabine National Forest. This is the river of my youth, slow and almost bubbling from summer doldrums, barely moving as it cuts through the timber on its way southeast to Toledo Bend.

Mud Duck was wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of two hands with only nine fingers and the words: "Nine good reasons not to noodle."

Mud Duck is a river rat, one of the breed of water men who knows when and where to set a trot line, how to kill and skin a squirrel, or where to find a wood duck roost. He has a catfish tattooed on his calf, and his sons, ages 6 and 4, really are named "Duck" Call and Camo.

I grew up with river rats along the Sabine. I fished with them and marveled at their knowledge and the quick and easy relationship they had with the water and with nature.

They caught frogs and sold them for money, and they were the last of the old, commercial alligator hunters.

Those guys fished in exotic places on the river with names like the Blue Hole and Pulaski. They slept on sand bars and ate fried fish for breakfast.

Their kids got to go with them for whole weekends, too, not just a Friday night and Saturday, and I often daydreamed through Sunday School about the adventures they were having, while I was having to play the preacher's good son. I hated that.

Mud Duck had no such restrictions. "I was born on the Attoyac River (which flows into Sam Rayburn Reservoir), and I always loved to catch catfish," he said. "Then I moved out of the house when I was 17, and I lived on the Sabine River."

He showed me a tumbledown spot on the water, where he had taken up residence in an old trailer. "I fed myself fishing. That's how I made my spending money."

And he's still fishing.

In shorts and shirtless, Mud Duck slipped down into the water and squatted Sumo style in three feet of tannin-stained Toledo Bend shallows. He huffed and puffed to oxygenate his blood, took a deep breath and slipped below the surface like a big turtle. In the black water, he extended his arms and shoved his hands inside a wooden box sitting on the muddy bottom.

Four feet by six feet by two feet, the box is like a coffin with a hole on one end. This noodlers' invention imitates the inside of an old cypress log or maybe one of the root-lined caves carved up under river banks by the restless movement of waves and current from the Sabine River.

Inside this man-made, submerged cave lurk a pair of flathead catfish that have chosen this place to spawn. Mud Duck knew the fish were there, because he could feel them thumping against the walls of the box.

Now, to appreciate what was about to happen, consider this:

Flatheads, also known as yellow cats and ops (for opelousas), are basically a freshwater badger — ill-tempered, territorial, willing to challenge foes three times their size. They can grow to more than 100 pounds. The two that Mud Duck was about to go hand-to-mouth with were more than 40 pounds each.

A mushroom cloud of silt boiled up from the spot where he was feeling around for the fish. Mud Duck rose and sank like a Loch Ness monster, blowing brown water away from his face before he went back in for another try.

He was wearing gloves to protect his hands. His forearms are littered with scabs and scars from earlier encounters. Finally, oddly bent forward at the waist, Mud Duck stood and stepped back from the box, holding his arms beneath the surface in front of him.

A pained grunt, a rumbly "uuunnnhhh," followed by "oww, that hurts" escapes his lips and suddenly the water around him began to roil and foam. Mud Duck had found a fish. Or the fish had found Mud Duck.

The first catfish of the trip, a 47-pounder, rolled and wriggled like a giant, bloated eel at the end of Mud Duck's arms. It's head was the size of a bucket and the mouth, fixed with an array of sharp, Velcro-scratchy teeth, was clamped down on Mud Duck's hands. There was pain on his face and strain, too, as he wrestled with the extremely chapped catfish. But he got it to the boat and into a big ice chest, and his friend, Shad Lout, followed with the second, 40-pound male.

That was enough for me. I just couldn't bring myself to kill any more of those big fish, which are likely between 20 and 30 years of age. "That's OK," Mud Duck said. "We've got plenty to eat."

Murdock's wife Paige estimates that more than 75 percent of the family's food comes from their garden and the creatures Mud Duck catches and kills for the freezer. Beyond the fish, that includes ducks, deer, squirrels and elk.

Paige is a Certified Public Accountant who works in Nacogdoches. Ronald runs the family timber business and also buys pipeline right of way for a large company based in Texas.

This river is home to Mud Duck. It's where he feels comfortable, and where he brings his children to let them, as he puts it, "Touch God."

"It's important for them to be on the river," he said as we sat in the shade above the water, trying to coax a breeze down from the treetops to the lean-to cooking area where we're sitting. "I know who made this. The good Lord knows what's important."

We fried those big catfish that night on the river bank, along with fries and the best hush puppies I've ever eaten. We broke open beers and toasted the fallen fish, new friends, and future experiences on the Sabine.

And maybe some banjo music, just for fun.

mleggett@statesman.com