By Barry Shlachter
Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Some women skydive, some rock climb.
Then there are the 14 women who meet up every so often in North Texas to compare skills at overpowering brutishly ugly, 60-pound catfish by blindly sticking a hand in their big mouths.
Meet the Bare Knuckle Babes.
The all-female group of noodlers was the brainchild of an enterprising Rockwall real estate agent named Jennifer Drake.
Three years ago, she organized 13 young, down-home women to pose for a calendar project with mud-dwelling catfish they hadn’t nabbed themselves. (The next month, Texas officially allowed hand fishing, dropping a $500 fine.)
It was clearly a money-making lark for Drake. But four of the models got, um, hooked, and since then every “babe,” from Miss January through Miss December and the calendar’s “cover girl,” has been a noodler.
Drake herself had been noodling for years. (She even converted her very reluctant husband, who had called the sport “ludicrous” and not for someone like him wth “all my teeth in my head.” Today Eddie Drake holds a tournament noodling record.)
What the businesswoman/hand fisher is tapping is the sport’s new-found fame, which is due in no small part to the insatiable American appetite for reality TV shows such as Animal Planet’s Hillbilly Handfishin and The History Channel’s Mudcats, which covers catfish noodlers in Oklahoma.
In September 2011, Texas legalized what’s also called hogging, stumping, catfisting, cat-daddling, grabbling, graveling, dogging, gurgling and tickling, depending on the particular body of water or region.
No one seems to know the origin of the most popular term, noodling. Drake believes the sport dates back to Native Americans.
The original babes got paid for posing in bikinis for the first calendar, but not for subsequent editions, although they get appearance fees at special events. The $20 calendar has a press run of about 1,000.
“It started as a hobby and now there’s a huge following,” said Drake, who also sells $25 Bare Knuckle Babe T-shirts, $3 koozies and $2 rubbery bracelets on her website.
And her noodlers raise money for charity (a recent guided noodling expedition netted $25,000), she said. Such outings with two women hand fishers start at $1,500. Dallas’ Trinity River Audubon Society is a favorite non-profit of her group.
Drake’s bare knucklers appear to do it more for the sport and accompanying camaraderie, than for any monetary gain.
“We’re definitely a team. I don’t want to call it a sorority. It’s more like a sisterhood,” explains Fort Worth resident Shereen Lewis, 25, who clerks at a downtown FedEx outlet on weekdays. “We learn so much from each other. I love it.”
Drake says she enforces strict rules since noodling can be a dangerous sport — two 19-year-old men drowned in May while noodling near Sulphur Springs in East Texas, and a 26-year-old noodler drowned in June 2013 in Oklahoma City’s North Canadian River.
She suspects beer might play a role in accidents and bans alcohol on her outings. Drake also insists on a buddy system for support in case a big fish drags a noodler under water.
While catfish don’t have sharp teeth, their mouths are like sandpaper, which can leave cuts, scrapes and bruises. Some noodlers wear gloves.
At tournaments, Drake says some male competitors have refused to believe that the women were the real thing.
“A lot of people thought we were too cute or too citified to be noodlers,” she said. “But we have videos to show we really do hand fish.”
On a recent July evening, Lewis and three other bare knucklers waded into Lake Ray Hubbard, and felt for holes with their feet in the muddy bottom near a concrete boat ramp.
Then they poked a foot into unseen crevices, hoping to grab a whiskered flathead catfish, a.k.a. yellow cat, opelousas, motley or shovelhead.
They were trying to fill pickups with catfish for a tournament in Royce City.
All emerged empty handed, including 25-year-old Faun Collins, who had flown in from Colorado.
Luckily, Crystal Staggs, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mom from Forney, had gone out earlier with her husband, a relative newcomer to the sport, and caught several flatheads, including one that weighed in the vicinity of 45 to 50 pounds.
“This is the biggest fish I’ve caught so far,” Staggs said.
“It thrashed a lot while I held on with my hand.
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It’s like riding a bull. You’re terrified, but also excited. There’s an adrenalin rush putting your hand in there. It’s so intense. And you’re like: I did it!”
While all are outdoorswomen, many challenge the redneck stereotype. Collins just received her bachelor’s degree in May and will start a master’s program this fall at the University of Denver.
Another will be starting medical school. Others include a registered nurse, a teacher and a graduate student in communications.
And Drake says that, as incredible as it may sound to some, “we’ve become role models to other women.”
At noodling tournaments, women have come up to thank the Bare Knuckle Babes for opening the eyes of their husbands and realizing that non-males enjoy the sport, she said.
“After years of marriage, they tell me they’ve finally been taken fishing,” she said. “We’ve brought families together. Yes, we have.”