"In the Jaws of a Catfish" — Bonus Content
Cover feature, The New York Times Escapes section, April 21th, 2006
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Read my full New York Times article and then come back and check out this extra footage and excised anecdote.

The chance to be bait for a day was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up. On the day of the tournament, the morning after Misty’s big catch, I met up with Jimmy Wilson, a slight, bespectacled fellow, Bo Zaske, an easygoing hulk of a man, and Mr. McFarlin’s jolly bearded cousin Mark McFarland, to see if we couldn’t do as well. (Mr. McFarland’s grandmother misspelled the surname and no one ever bothered to change it back, according to family legend.)

Our site was the Cimarron River, brown, wide, and overhung by sandstone cliffs. After a half hour of searching, Mr. Wilson found a fish hiding in an eddy near a clump of roots. He invited me over to try and catch it.

I have a somewhat unnatural fear of fish, particularly large ones: my only recurring childhood nightmare involved a trout. Sensing my trepidation, Mr. Zaske tried to reassure me, saying, “Don’t worry. All he can do is tear a little skin off.” I lowered my body until just my face was peeking out of the water, as I saw Mr. Wilson do, and tried to ignore the pervasive scent of manure from the agricultural runoff. He slid his arm out of the hole as I slid mine in to make sure the fish didn’t escape.

When I was in position, Mr. Wilson told me the game plan: “Now, Bo’s gonna chase him towards you, and when he bites, whatever you do, don’t pull your arm out.” Seeing that I didn’t have my arm all the way in the hole, he added, “And don’t you short-arm him.” Mr. Zaske dove down with the stick, and I reached my arm in further, scraping it against the contours of the rock. I waved my arm around the hole, feeling it out and desperately hoping they hadn’t somehow missed a cottonmouth. To the left: rock, down: dirt, to the right: rock, up: slimy rubbery thing that bit my fingers and retreated. I jerked my arm back, skinning my elbow in the process. “He got you, huh, Short-arm?” Mr. McFarland asked, and the fishermen erupted into laughter.

I tried again. I wiggled my fingers like wet spaghetti. I rippled my wrist like cooked lasagna. The catfish, however, having tasted me once, was not interested in a second helping. I was secretly thrilled.

Mr. Wilson took over, this time going underwater for maximum leverage. He started thrashing around, his body twisting as his sneakers unearthed clods of dirt from the bank. I was alarmed, but Mr. Zaske said, “Oh, he’s got him!” When Mr. Wilson came up, he asked for the “stringer,” a rope attached to a long nail, to run through the fish’s gills. Once done, he handed me the line, and I lifted it out of the water. The thing was blue, whiskered and grotesque, the skin worn off its forehead where it had dug the hole. It seemed massive, by far the largest fish I’d seen in the wild. “Oh, it’s a baby!” Mr. Zaske exclaimed. I blinked at him. “A little fish like that has no business in a hole that big,” Mr. Wilson added, shaking his head. Before tossing it back, they estimated the fish at four or five pounds. The one the McFarlins caught the night before was 51.

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© Noodling photos copyright Paul Hellstern
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© Copyright Ethan Todras-Whitehill 2006