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Noodling Season

January 22, 2015

Originally written in June of 2013, edited in 2015.

This is my first entry into a new project I’m starting. This will work as sort of a journal that will relate to my studio work and anything that might bisect the content of my work through personal experiences.

I came back to South Carolina after summer one year for another semester of graduate school. It had been an extremely good season of catfish noodling back in Kentucky. I was sore, tanned as a work boot, and I wasn’t totally positive that a fish hadn’t broken one of my fingers. It’s tougher than you might think to work in a studio art setting while also nursing fish induced wounds. I had been the butt of several redneck jokes around the art department, but believe it or not, that didn’t really surprise me. Several weeks later, our first printmaking critique rolled around, and my finger was still just as sore as it had been. At some point in the critique I cracked my knuckles. A surge of pain shot through said finger and it made a most unsettling pop, but it stopped hurting a couple days after that. I excused myself to step into the hallway and try not to cry for a couple minutes over the pain in my hand. The pains of noodling season can last well into September.

Since it’s that time of year again, I figured I’d share a few thoughts about cat fishing that have some bearing on my studio practices. Noodling season is one of those things that as soon as it’s over, I’m already looking to the next season. Most of the time, it’s one of those transitions that sneaks past you while you sleep, as the heat of the season doesn’t last very long. Each hunting or fishing season has its own aesthetics that I love. For the sake of this post, I’ll detail those things as the seasons come around, and deer season isn’t terribly far away. But for now, I want to share a few thoughts about getting chewed on by catfish for a few days out of each year.

One of my favorite parts of going back to The Island  is watching the landscape transform from mountainous southern Appalachia, to gently rolling farmlands, and onto western Kentucky’s swampy playground, the Jackson Purchase (The Island). When I cross the Tennessee River and the land becomes muddy, flooded and emerald green, I can almost smell the sweet scent of catfish slime and Neosporin on mangled fingers. Everyone has those dreamlike connections with their home, and even though it’s cliche for me to say this, I didn’t really realize that until I left. I don’t think I can effectively describe it in words, but we all know what it’s like to be home after a long absence. How quickly I fall back into the place I used to live sometimes make me feel like I’ve never left, which sounds a lot like the description of a ghost to me. The idea of habitation being non linear or non centered is something I’ve started to think about in my studio.

Other than the obvious joys of screaming like a wild-child as we hoist giant catfish out of muddy water, there are things about noodling season I miss for the rest of the year. For instance, there is a more ancient part of me that, for whatever reason, enjoys it when my hands are too covered with catfish bites to do much of anything with my hands. My fishing buddies and I call it ‘getting the business end’. A couple seasons ago, my brother and I caught what is probably our record flathead to date, about a 70 pounder. My arm was wrecked and that fish is one of the few that has given me permanent scars. I’d like to tell you that we let him go, but he managed to finally win the battle when he flopped out of our grip after a few quick photos. That story would be the one I would use to describe to someone what ‘getting the business end’ means in the catfish universe. I like to think the big guy is still out there somewhere. I don’t know how you would describe my relationship to that fish, but that kind of thing is how I make sense of this experience. That fish became a keystone in my studio and in our fishing chronology, as he affected our subsequent noodling seasons in a lot of silent ways.

We cover a lot of water in a solid day of catfish noodling. There is a lot of time spent talking to one another over the roar of the boat motor, anxiously awaiting what bite or jammed finger is in store for us. When you finally slow down and approach your next target, then things get a lot quieter. Once submerged, you can only hear the distant and dull hum as you swim further down. Those few seconds of silence sometimes stay just that, and they sometimes come to a crashing halt when a fish slams into your hand with an agenda to hurt stuff. The sounds and the darkness of noodling fascinate me. Being part of a different universe where our otherwise primary senses are next to useless, if only for a few seconds at a time, can be a very awakening thing.

At the end of the day everyone lumbers out of the water like tired, sunburned, half eaten zombies. In all likelihood, your hands will be sore to an extent, but you also might have 20 pounds or more of meat for your freezer. When I lay down at night, my insides still feel the waves and current of the water, my skin feels tight from baking in the sun, and my arms are covered with about half a box of band aids. These are the days that count.