Sunday, August 14, 2011

VIDEO: 'Hillbilly Handfishin'

Most people are perfectly content to use a rod and reel to fish, but a small cadre of people want a more intimate experience with their seafood.

For them, there is "handfishing," or "noodling," an activity where participants use their hands, fingers, toes or feet to catch their prey.

As a sport, noodling hasn't gotten nearly the attention of traditional fishing, but to practitioners like Skipper Bivins, who has been handfishing since the age of four, there's no comparison.

"It's a skill that's transferable into life," he told HuffPost Weird News. "People are scared at first, but people like scary things -- that's why they see scary movies. But once you get that adrenaline going, it can change your life."

Bivins may be due for a life change himself. He is the star of "Hillbilly Handfishin'," a new TV series debuting Aug. 7 on Animal Planet in which he and his partner, Jackson, take a group of city slickers out to his favorite rivers and creeks in Oklahoma in hopes of catching catfish that can be as much as 70 pounds -- with their hands and feet.

Bivins' biggest catch was 111 pounds, but even the five-pounders can freak a person out, especially a first-timer who isn't used to diving into murky water and sticking their hands or feet into a hole in hopes of finding a fish.

"Most of the people we take out are city dwellers whose idea of muddy water is the stuff in their bathtub," Bivins laughed. "That's probably the deepest water as well. We have a lot of fun just watching the reaction of the people who catch the fish their first time. They have no idea what to expect."

Take, for instance, executive producer Keith Hoffman, who not only has put his faith in Bivens as a potential TV star, but also stuck his foot in a murky catfish hole.

"Yep, I got bit by a catfish and I have the picture of the bloody foot to prove it," Hoffman said. "It was really scary. There is no way to act calmly."

Bivins has taken his share of lumps, bumps and chomps over the years, but so far, he has avoided being bitten by the poisonous cottonmouth snakes that like the same holes as the catfish.

"They're sometimes hard to see in the water 'cause they're camouflaged," he said. "We sometimes use a spotter to keep watch while we're in the water. I have had a few encounters with raccoons though."

Bivins learned to handfish when he was a boy. "My Daddy tells me I caught my first fish when I was four. I don't remember, but that's what he said."

He started taking tourists for rides seven years ago when he started Big Fish Adventures.

Before that, he did construction and was a roofer. Going from the top to the bottom of a river has been one of the best decisions he's ever made.

"It's a lot more fun. There's nothing fun about roofing," he said.

There are only a few states that currently allow noodling, partially because of environmental concerns. However, Bivins says 95 percent of the fish caught by him and his clients are thrown back.

"I leave it up to them, but I tend to throw back the small ones and the really big ones," he said. "I figure the big ones deserve it -- they've put up a good fight for a long time."

Bivins hopes the show helps raise the profile of handfishing, especially among women.

"When we take people out on trips, we try to get the squeamish girls to do it first," he said. "Once they get a fish, everyone falls in line. In some ways, women have an advantage over men because they can fit into tighter holes than the men."

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