Reality Bites: Hillbilly Handfishin'

Fishy fishy fishy fish.
Fishy fishy fishy fish.

I was about a third of the way through watching this week's Reality Bites entry when I realized I might be accused of skewing too much toward...rural interests in recent weeks, what with that show about the redneck pageant kid and now the show about the rednecks who stick extremities into underwater holes to catch fish.

But I just had to check out Hillbilly Handfishin' because of my vast personal connections to the sport. During my years covering Oklahoma City's deadCENTER Film Festival, I made the acquaintance of (and interviewed) Bradley Beesley, director of the superior documentary Okie Noodling, about the long tradition of "noodling," i.e., fishing for catfish by sticking arms or legs down submerged holes. I got to meet some of the subjects of the sequel (Okie Noodling II, natch) at dCFF '08, and wrote about the experience here.

And did I mention my wife went noodling just last year? It was on a trip with some college friends while I stayed home with the kids. If it sounds weirdly emasculating, that's because it totally is.

Noodling/handfishing, a queer fringe activity to 99 percent of the United States back in 2001 when Beesley's doc was released, is big business now. Each year there are larger tournaments complete with ESPN coverage, to say nothing of actual excursions for tourists eager to get gnawed on by Pylodictis olivaris, so the arrival of Hillbilly Handfishin' was a logical development. Skipper Bivens and Trent Jackson operate Big Fish Adventures in Oklahoma, taking groups out to experience the aquatic terror of a giant catfish clamping down on one of their limbs.

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The format is that of an informal game show; Skipper and Jackson take three teams of two out to see who can secure the most pounds of catfish in three days. The episode I saw featured: MariJane and Chuck, an Ohio mother-in-law/son-in-law duo out to do Iowa proud (shouldn't be hard), though I'm not sure how normal that particular pairing is. Guys, would you like to spend three days neck deep in a river with your mother-in-law? Think before answering. We also had Dena and Dusty, two female big game hunters with a healthy competitive streak and...oh, who am I kidding? They just wanted to show a few clips of attractive women firing guns and getting conveniently soaked. I know it's Animal Planet, but you gotta get butts in the seats.

Finally, Tom and Tim are preachers from New Jersey, both with the requisite terrible hair and both vaguely effeminate enough to make everyone else on the trip eye each other uneasily throughout.

This episode, the competition was "changed up:" Instead of three teams of two, they're going to split them into two teams of three. Fortunately, nobody is hung up on the switch. Dena and Dusty are made captains, with the lineups being Dena-Chuck-Tim (Team "Upchucks") and Dusty-Mary Jane-Tom (Team "Fat Cats").

The first spot is East Cash Creek, a tributary of the Red River which is chock full of enough country-style vermin to send the city mouse NJ preachers screeching like debutantes. There's that "god warrior" spirit I've been hearing so much about.

Know your enemy.
Know your enemy.

For starters, I have to take issue with the use of the expression "handfishing" here. Most of what we see involves one of the contestants getting a feeble enough lock on his or her limb so Skipper can attach a stringer to their gills and yank them out. Call me a noodling purist, but shouldn't they have to pull the beast out by hand (or foot)? Why not just start dynamiting them and get it over with?

There's a lot of Lord thanking from Tim and Tom. I have no idea who decided this episode should feature these yahoos so prominently, but every missed shot of Dusty tossing her damp hair in the Oklahoma sun should earn the editor another ten lashes with an HDMI cable.

Beaver Creek is next, and Team Upchucks is down 42 pounds. Dena catches a catfish that Jackson describes as "looking like it's been to an Oklahoma dentist." Those are usually fighting words at the Red River Shootout, but since an Oklahoma native said it, that takes the curse off. Tom is -- surprise -- a little more reluctant when his turn arrives, but when they start shoving him into the hole, he exhibits a surprising (for a man of God) capacity for profanity. He's also a huge drama queen. I know, a preacher with a flair for exaggeration? Perish the thought.

It takes the better part of an hour for Tom to land his 21-pounder, putting the Fat Cats up by...something. It doesn't really matter, as Skipper starts assigning "bonus" pounds to smaller catches (he-man Tim struggles mightily to haul in a mere two-pounder), then resets the score entirely. I honestly don't remember who won the fabled trophy, but the whole thing reminded me of the "Pinochle World Champion" trophy my grandfather used to compete for with his neighbor, which traded ownership about every two days.

I really have nothing against the practice of handfishing. Skipper and Jackson practice catch-and-release, which is nice, and at least the sport itself offers the fish a chance to take off a finger or drown somebody. That's certainly a fairer shake than a deer facing a guy up in a tree with a high-powered rifle gets. In fact, if I had to rank the various animal-killing activities, I'd do so in this order (least chance of getting killed by prey to most):

Prey (means of execution):

Trout (lure) Quail/dove (shotgun) Bass (tennis racket) Deer (rifle) Catfish (hand) Javelina (bow) Marlin/tarpon (pole) Bear (knife) Great white shark (bare hands)

Come to think of it, somebody at the Discovery Channel needs to greenlight Man vs. Great White. That'd be a pretty entertaining end to Shark Week.


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