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Okay, Seriously: What Is ‘Hillbilly Handfishin’? Glad You Asked!

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
August 15, 2011

Animal Planet sent out a press release last Tuesday pointing out that the premiere of Hillbilly Handfishin’ had scored the most viewers of any debut in the history of the network: about 1.5 million people. It’s not up there with the numbers that American Idol or Two And A Half Men gets, but if you’re Animal Planet, that audience makes you happy. That audience is also big enough that before you know it, somebody is going to ask you if you have seen Hillbilly Handfishin’.

So what, pray tell, is Hillbilly Handfishin’?

Well. In Oklahoma, there are these two guys. One of them, obviously, is named Skipper. The other, less obviously, is named Trent. Skipper and Trent run a sort of … adventure company, I suppose, in rural Oklahoma, where they take city folk out to rivers or lakes to learn how to catch catfish with their bare hands. (They don’t actually call this hillbilly handfishing themselves; they call it “noodling.”) (And yes, you can look up “noodling” on Wikipedia.)

So each episode follows a tour group full of people who have decided, for whatever reason, that they’re going to reinvigorate their lives by reaching into underwater holes and pulling out catfish. See, what you do is, you get the fish to bite you, and then you pull him out. (I have “noodled” for cats this way, although it’s been accidental.)

Generally, the city folk have a weird relationship with nature that’s not entirely unlike the one that causes more ambitious types to climb Everest. You sense that they feel like they’ve wandered away from their roots as mastodon-hunting conquerors, and now they just order takeout, and the last thing they hunted was a semi-obscure French novel at Barnes & Noble. So now, they want to get dirty and be able to claim that they grabbed a giant fish with their bare hands. Thus, their relationship to nature will be back in balance, and they can go back to eating at Chipotle.

This all lends a strange note of heightened emotions to the outings, as when one older client suffers the humiliation of being the last one in the group not to have caught a fish yet — even his wife has caught a fish! and his wife is a girl! OH, THE HUMANITY! — and it’s pretty clear that if he doesn’t catch a fish, he’s going to have a massive crisis. (Please note: While they are seen eating catfish at one point, it appears that the catfish caught by the tourist types are set free, at least as far as I could tell. Whether you choose to be glad they weren’t killed or grossed out that they’re being grabbed and put through a traumatic capture just to make an urban smartypants feel powerful, that’s up to you.)

What makes this show genius (from a watchability perspective, not a fine-art perspective) is that you can watch it in one of two ways. You can enjoy the colorful charms of Skipper and Trent by watching it from the city slickers’ point of view, as when one of the fellas says that one of the clients was on a fish “like an otter on a fish,” and then seemingly realizes that that doesn’t really do a lot, homespun-metaphor-wise, so he changes it to, “like a duck on a junebug.” (I don’t actually know how a duck approaches a junebug, but apparently, it’s done very enthusiastically.) Skipper and Trent are perfectly positioned on the line between “laugh at” and “laugh with,” in that it’s mostly “with,” sprinkled with a tiny dash of “at.”

But you can also watch it from the point of view of the noodlers, and you can laugh at the maladjusted city people who leap out of their skins every time a catfish bites them. And please note: Some of these catfish weigh 70 pounds. So they bite kind of hard.

Moreover, while there’s a small amount of underwater photography, most of the show consists of watching people from above water level while they’re fighting underwater to grab fish. Combine that with the fact that the central concept of noodling is the “hole” from which you extract the fish, and you have a lot of people’s heads and shoulders visible while they’re wiggling, shrieking, and yelling things like “Work that hole!” It is profoundly silly, and all you’re really waiting to see is either somebody pulling out a huge fish or somebody getting chomped on the hand, but it’s weirdly compelling nevertheless.

It’s hard to come up with a “man versus nature” show that compartmentalizes that battle into something you can shoot with a couple of cameras and (I’m guessing) very, very little money. Hillbilly Handfishin’ is that rare show where all you need is a rock, a really big fish, and a bunch of people who don’t want to feel like nature has them over a barrel anymore. I caught this fish with my hands using nothing more than several trained professionals! they seem to say. Take that, hungry mountain lions! [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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