'Noodling' makes Oklahoma pair unlikely TV stars on Animal Planet fishing show
BY DAVID HARPER World Staff Writer
Sunday, February 03, 2013
2/03/13 at 8:16 AM
Skipper Bivins and Trent Jackson catch fish with their hands. You could also say they caught lightning in a bottle.
The two Oklahoma men have been thrusting their hands into crevices beneath the surface of the state's lakes since they were children to engage in noodling.
In recent years, their participation in the sport has thrust them into the national spotlight.
On Saturday, the stars of Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin' " were at the Tulsa Boat, Sport and Travel Show at Expo Center to meet their fans and reflect on their unlikely ascent to stardom.
"We're just country folks who know how to have fun," said Bivins, who like Jackson, hails from Cotton County in southern Oklahoma.
Jackson said the two became friends about 20 years ago when Bivins pitched in to help Jackson avoid losing hay to approaching floodwaters.
They soon discovered their shared interest in noodling, a sport in which large catfish are wrestled out of the water by individuals brave enough to stick their hands into the creatures' mouths while hoping not to draw the ire of water moccasins and snapping turtles or become entangled in whatever else is lurking underwater.
Both men said noodling can be extremely dangerous and stressed that a person should always bring an experienced companion with them on noodling expeditions.
In fact, that's the premise of their Animal Planet show.
They typically take non-outdoorsy people who Bivins said "have never had mud between their toes" and, through learning to noodle, have them overcome the elements and their own fears.
These fish out of water have their lives transformed by pulling fish out of the water.
"It changes their lives," Jackson said. "Everybody that goes feels like they can conquer the world after they're done."
It's fair to say that the worlds of Bivins and Jackson have changed in the past couple of years.
In August 2011, Animal Planet announced that the premiere of "Hillbilly Handfishin' " had drawn 1.5 million people, the biggest audience of any debut in the history of the network up to that point.
The pair has made the rounds on talk shows such as "The Tonight Show," and Bivins has even appeared in an independent film called "The Secret of Sarah Pennington," in which he plays a detective.
The movie has nothing to do with noodling, but Bivins and Jackson vowed not to turn their backs on noodling as long as their backs hold out.
Jackson - who said he had to seek emergency treatment not long ago when a fin sliced open one of his arms - said that when his body can't handle the rigors of noodling any more he may resort to "senior citizen fishing," or traditional fishing.
Of course, traditional anglers sometimes may have unkind things to say about noodlers and question whether fishing without bait is really a sport.
Bivins counters that noodlers are bold enough to use themselves as bait in what he called the most primitive form of fishing. He said it's his hope that noodling, which he compared to hunting bears with a switch, will some day be legal in all 50 states.
In the meantime, Bivins and Jackson have grabbed a hold of fame like the 111-pound catfish that stands as their personal record catch.
Bivins and Jackson are not scheduled to appear at the 2013 Tulsa Boat, Sport & Travel Show's final day on Sunday, when doors will open at Expo Center at 11 a.m. and close at 5 p.m., about 30 minutes before the kickoff of the Super Bowl.
Original Print Headline: Fishin' magicians
David Harper 918-581-8359
Trent Jackson (left) and Skipper Bivins, hosts of Animal Planet's TV series "Hillbilly Handfishin,'" pose with Tracy Robison of Claremore as her husband, Tony Robison, shoots a photograph at the Tulsa Boat, Sport and Travel Show at the Expo Center in Tulsa. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World
Trent Jackson and Skipper Bivins (right), hosts of Animal Planet's TV series "Hillbilly Handfishin,'" sign autographs for fans. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World