During the hot summer months, getting in the water has always been a fun way for me to stay cool while fishing.
But this year, I really took my water fishing to the next level by leaving the boat at home —and swimming to retrieve my noodle lines.
This new idea dawned on me on after my 32nd birthday run, when a group of my buddies ran 32 miles along the entire Hwy. 15 stretch on R. K. Yancey Wildlife Management Area that we called the “River Monster 50 Kilometer.”
Immediately after the 5-hour run, we went to retrieve my noodle lines I had set the previous day by pirogues in the flooded Mississippi River. That’s when I just decided to jump in and cool off — instead of dragging a boat up and down the levee.
I dove down under a log and pulled out a tangled catfish, and the thrill instantly had me hooked on this new water sport. Even when lines didn’t have a fish, the workout from just retrieving and rolling up a line while treading water made for an extreme way to get in shape.
Of course, you should be an excellent swimmer for this style of “fishing” — I swim 4 to 6 days a week year round, so don’t try it unless you’re really comfortable in the water.
My buddy and I were swimming out for lines that looked to be empty when I came across one that was hung up 10 feet down. So I dove down to free the hook and felt a big catfish swipe me. It took me five minutes to get the fish up near the surface, but the line was still hung up.
Both my friends were a ways off, but after yelling for assistance they finally came with their kayak while I continued to bear hug the fish and tread water. We weren’t catching many fish at these new spots, so I didn’t want to let go of supper.
I cut the line with a knife, but now I was sinking. With my arms grasping the fish, my legs were far too tired to stay afloat. One buddy dove down and lifted up my feet while the other grabbed my arm — and I was barely able to toss the big blue cat into the kayak.
We slowly made our way back to the bank, full of smiles and laughs about a fishing experience that we’ll likely never forget.
For me, it’s never about the size of a fish that makes it special — but the manner in which it’s caught. Never before had a fish been so tough to harvest — nor had landing a catfish ever been so fun.
Since then, I designed a custom made stringer with a 12-inch piece of rod tip. When I get to a fish, I stick the rod through the back of the gills and out through the mouth to keep the fish secured. Then I use a piece of pool noodle, a loop in the string and a carabiner to turn the stringer into a big loop to which the fish is connected. A flexible cast net handle is tied to the string to put around my wrist, so I can use both hands to swim the fish ashore.
Check out this video of lots of swim-fishing action.
The next weekend I tried some spots down around Norco in the Mississippi River and ended up feeling a giant fish slap against my leg. When I went to the limb my noodle line was tied to, the big mud whale was wrapped around a tree.
I kept diving down until I untwisted the line. If you pull on the line without untangling it first, the hook often gets yanked into the sticks and the fish is able to free itself.
As I wrestled it to the surface, I couldn’t believe how big the fish was — I estimated the big blue cat at about 60 pounds. That day I caught 10 and released all but one to eat. (I really wanted a big flathead, but had no luck that day.)
For this type of fishing, I highly recommend water shoes. Since I can't swim well with gloves on, feeling with my feet allows me to find the fish and determine the species. One of my lines had an alligator gar down below — I’m glad I didn’t grab that fish by the hand first.
Sometimes I take my 8-foot kayak or my bay boat to retrieve lines, but still need to jump in to untangle lines that are twisted down below to retrieve my tackle. Other times I walk the muck countless miles, setting 50 to100 noodle lines on limbs out in the water.
My ultra-marathon buddy accompanied me on a few swim noodling trips and we spent over 10 minutes treading and diving down just to land one catfish in an area with tiny bushes that provided nothing to hold on to.
Another trip, we wrestled out seven flathead catfish in the water with his kids wrangling the smaller ones. We even caught a giant 40-pound soft shell turtle that day. My Ironman buddy who came along once said Mississippi River swim-fishing in general was far tougher than any normal swimming or races he does, but he still believes the large waves, colder water and stronger current of many Ironman races is more dangerous overall because those events take place in open water for miles at a time.
I find the 5- to 8-foot-depth flooded trees are very productive to finding nice channels, big blues and flatheads. And it’s much easier at places with trees to hold on to have some leverage in the water. Since much of the river has the same type of tree lines, I look for small creek run offs, points that create eddies and small isolated tree clusters to set lines.
After rains, I like to set lines where the water drains. This creates bubbles and mixing water. One day this summer, I dove down to free a tangled fish and brought up a 32-inch, 12-pound choupic.
If the lines are in a river pond surrounded by trees, tossing them out to float around seems to work. In most spots where the current would take a line off to the Gulf, I look for limber limbs to tie on my noodle lines.
My dad grew up swimming in the Mississippi River retrieving flooded shrimp boxes, and swam out to the middle for sheer his entire childhood in spots over 100 feet deep with much stronger current. But I like to stay away from any strong current areas and stick to waters near tree lines.
For extra peace of mind, I keep a dive knife strapped to my leg and a backup pocket knife that I fasten to my shorts on a coiled lanyard. Also, I always wear a fanny pack life jacket with a quick-inflation CO2 canister in order to have a ready backup plan.
I don’t know of any free divers that use the fanny pack life jacket, but it allows me to dive down with it on. I value the sense of security — especially since it’s usually just me and my dog on these adventures.
Many might think this style of fishing as far too tough, but for me it’s never about simply catching a fish — that can be pretty easy. It’s more about the way I catch my fish — pushing my limits and having a fun time in the process.
One thing’s for sure: It beats swimming back and forth in my gym’s 25-yard pool for hours at a time to train.
So while modern times and equipment seem to make outdoor experiences easier, I’m still focused on using mostly manual power. And let me tell you, swim fishing with noodle lines is the most extreme thing I’ve ever experienced down in bayou country.