PRAGUE, Okla. | Flathead catfish are the hardheaded, whiskered, muscle-bound, slick rulers of their watery domain, but one young Oklahoma family grows and thrives on showing Mr. Whiskers who really is the boss.
Nathan Williams, 30, and his boys Jayce, 14, River, 8, and Phierce, 6, are well-known in the noodling world.
River latched on to a 54-pounder when he was 4 – a catch that is a piece of family lore.
“It pulled him out into the channel,” Williams said of the catfish that outweighed his son by almost 20 pounds. “He finally got to a sandbar, and I looked at that fish and said, ‘That ain’t no 35-pounder!’”
Williams has a response for the critics who would say this is simply too dangerous for a child. It’s all about having the right place to fish, doing it safely, having a guide who is experienced and catching enough fish that the boys learn how to handle them, he said.
And he certainly has the experience. Williams’ hand-fishing skills gained him a public reputation with numerous television appearances and tournament wins the past few years.
In May, the reputation grew as Williams and friend Kelly Millsap grabbed an 85-pound 2-ounce behemoth to set the new hand-fishing world record at Texas’ Lake Tawakoni Noodling Tournament.
The reputation is not without controversy, though; accusations of cheating have long been a part of Oklahoma noodling. Rumors always fly, it seems. Most tournaments require winners to pass a polygraph test these days. Williams has passed several.
He takes the criticism seriously, but doesn’t take it to heart.
Still, he takes video of his fish releases after tournaments and often posts on Facebook videos of his kids catching the big fish people think a child never could handle. Part of it is to show the fish are released to prove they’re gone, part of it is to encourage catch-and-release, he said.
The Tulsa World reports the family catches hundreds of catfish each summer, but keep few. Most are simply photographed and released where they’re caught.
Television appearances and tournaments add incentive, Williams said, but it’s the family involvement that keeps him going.
He decided to start his guiding business after he joined “River Monsters” host Jeremy Wade and caught three 50-plus-pound cats for the Animal Planet television series.
But his sons had to be part of it, he said.
“If I couldn’t have them with me when I’m out there, most of the time I wouldn’t go nearly as much,” Williams said.
Williams didn’t try noodling until he was a young teen and has been mostly self-taught. No one in his family hand-fished, but he and a friend spent most afternoons fishing and hunting rivers and creeks, and they had heard old-timers talk.
“We didn’t know if it was real or just stories,” Williams said. “But, you know, we were just talking and my friend said he didn’t think I could do it and I said, ‘I bet I can.’”
And so a noodler was born.