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.
Williams didn’t know more than one catfish was in the shallow bank hole, and he thought his son was grabbing one of about 30 pounds.
The youngster knew how to get a stringer through a fish’s gills and had it secured before he pulled it all the way out of the hole. It broke loose from his grip in seconds, but River had the stringer wrapped around his wrist as he had been taught, so he went for a ride, “floaty suit” and all.
“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.
“There’s always going to be those non-believers, but just ignore them and keep on fishing,” he said.
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 reported that 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.
“I realized if I could take that guy from the (United Kingdom) who’s been fishing all over the world — the Amazon, the Congo, everywhere — if I can take him, I can take anybody, so that’s when I decided to start my guide business,” he said.
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.
This year’s world record and tournament wins are only a part of the story.
“It’s a bigger a deal to me that I got my grandma out finally, and she actually caught a really nice fish, too,” he said of 72-year-old Alice June Ives.
The family calls her “Old Nana.”
As she watched her grandson win the Okie Noodling Tournament at Pauls Valley on June 17, Ives bragged a little on her own adventure.
“These are my battle scars,” she said, displaying bruises and cuts on her forearm and hand from fighting her 35-pound flathead. “This is where he slammed me into the concrete, and this is where he bit me.”
The pride in her grandson showed, as well.
“People just don’t know how dedicated and talented he is if they haven’t been out with him,” she said. “He is just bulldog-determined when he gets on something. He’s been that way since he was born.”
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.
Nathan Williams, a middle-school math teacher at Mason Public Schools, devotes his summers to guiding, tournaments and taking the boys outdoors.
Miley Williams, 30 — his wife of five years, girlfriend since high school and mother of the boys — started younger than her husband but nowadays is less enthusiastic about catching fish for herself.
A full-time geospatial mapping specialist for the Chickasaw Nation at Ada, her working hours and hour-long commute from their home in Prague often don’t leave time to go noodling with the boys.
A recent afternoon, halfway into a five-mile hike down a shallow creek, she reminisced. Her barefoot boys outpaced her as she carefully stepped through the rockiest portion of the creek in her thick pink socks.
“I used to go with my uncle when I was about Phierce’s age, about 5 or 6. I was the stringer girl,” she said of the method noodlers use to secure the fish through its gills. “I still remember pulling the fish along in the water like dogs on a leash.”
She sets limits on her own noodling. She doesn’t go under water into holes.
She gets nervous when the boys do it, but said she knows in her heart Nathan wouldn’t put them in danger.
“My wife is the best I could ask for,” Nathan said. “We get along so well, and we have the same mentality and the same views.”
The base level of endurance and patience required for enjoying a scorching hot day on the creek highlighted by fights with tough catfish shows through in a Williams-family trait: tenacity.
The boys work as a team — a sometimes bickering or complaining or crying team, but an unbreakable chain nonetheless. They look out for one another, depend on one another and have to trust one another.
Each of the boys caught his first catfish at age 3.
Jayce, Phierce and River crawl, climb and swim in their environment barefoot and fearless.
“Sometimes they’ve been bitten so hard they’ll cry,” Nathan said. “That won’t stop them. They’ll want to go back in and try again.”
Phierce already is living up to his name in that regard, he said.
“He is the most fearless of the bunch,” he said of the 6-year-old.
The boys all wear scrapes, cuts and the telltale catfish bites that look like someone raked their skin with a wire brush.
All have caught 40-plus pounders in their young noodling careers.
In the right conditions, namely shallow water, their father can hold them by the feet and direct them down into a hole where, as noodlers like to say, “they are the bait.”
At age 14, but standing 5-foot-7 and pushing 190 pounds, Jayce has become his father’s noodling partner. He was in the water with Nathan when he caught a 73.55-pound fish that would win the Okie Noodling Tournament at Paul’s Valley.
“He went down there and got whumped right away,” Jayce said. “You know how you can hear 30 pounders and it’s like ‘whump,’ and this was like ‘wwhu-ummph!’
“He came up and said ‘I got it,’ so I pushed him up against the concrete so he could stay up because he had his legs wrapped around it and we got it on the stringer,” he said.
The boys know all the techniques: how to put a catfish in a headlock, where to grab a smaller fish by the lips and gill covers, how to pin a fish to the ground by the head or the lip or against your chest so that, no matter how hard as it swims, it still isn’t going anywhere.
It may be the domain of a hardheaded fish, but when the fearless Williams family gets in the water, as Nathan says, they “show that catfish who’s boss.”