The answer is no. Nathan Worthington and Cody Buell have never been bit by a turtle while noodling. Though, understandably, they get the question a lot.
As Worthington explains, "You're going underwater. You can't see anything. You're sticking your hand in a dark hole and hoping something bites it."
A form of hand-fishing, catfish noodling is the practice of feeling around underwater in search of the cavities where catfish spawn — and in which they become fiercely territorial.
"Catfish don't bite and let go; they bite and shake," says Worthington. "I describe the feeling as getting bit by a pit bull with no teeth."
Dayton, Tennessee, locals, Worthington, 40, and Buell, 33, met in 2013 when they began working together at La-Z-Boy. Upon learning that Worthington noodled, Buell asked to be taught and the two became fast friends — especially inseparable during catfish season, which runs from May though July.
"I joke that he's my husband for three months a year," Buell says.
In 2018, the two competed on the 32nd season of CBS' "Amazing Race," a reality game show in which teams of two race around the world, deciphering clues, navigating foreign lands and performing physical and mental challenges for the chance to win $1 million.
When the season aired last fall, Worthington and Buell were the first to be eliminated. But despite their brief airtime, they say they've remained close with the other cast members and are grateful for the chance to have helped dispel misconceptions about Southerners.
"I think the assumption was we would be bumpkins — which we are, but we're also open to learn," says Buell, who has two master's degrees, one in public health and the other in public administration.
When it comes to catfish noodling, however, there are some misconceptions the two playfully welcome.
"Turtles!" quips Buell. "Oh yeah, we find all of them. I've already lost eleven fingers this year."
Here, in their own words, Worthington and Buell discuss their passion for noodling, the real risks involved and their commitment to conservation through the sport.
NATHAN WORTHINGTON: [Noodling] is a huge adrenaline rush. You're going underwater. You can't see anything. You're sticking your hand in a dark hole and hoping something bites it.
CODY BUELL: That's a good Friday night for us. Nathan and I are selective in who we take [noodling] because holes are so limited. We've spent thousands and thousands of hours walking banks and looking for locations.
NW: We have more than 200 holes GPS marked, from Chickamauga Dam to Whites Creek in Roane County, and we have names for every one. My wife gets upset when I can't remember certain dates but can remember the names of every one of our holes. My favorite is probably "Double Knee Replacement" hole. It's named for the lady who lives nearby. When we met her, she'd just had a double knee replacement.
CB: Conservation is a huge part of what we do. Whenever we go out, we pick up every floating bottle. It's like a game. And we've never taken a fish. We release them, and we release them unharmed. Some people will grab [catfish] down the throat, jamming their arm through the gill plates, but that can harm them. We only grab them by the lips. We catch the same fish every year. We've got fish that we've named because we catch them so much. They become family.
NW: I caught a fish once during a catfish tournament in Decatur [Tennessee]. We took her 4 1/2 miles to weigh her in, then released her at the weigh-in stop. Two weeks later, I caught her again. The reason I knew it was the same fish was because her top jaw was broken in half. We call her "Broke Jaw." This is my 11th season, and I have never kept one [fish]. This is their nesting season. They have eggs, so if you take that fish you are actually killing thousands of others.
NW: I took my nephew [noodling] once. He was an MMA fighter and 22 years old at the time. I went down with him to show him the hole. He put his arm in and, nothing. So he tries again and now the fish is sitting at the front of the hole. He gets his fingertips in, the fish bites him and he's screaming underwater, bubbles everywhere. I was like, "You get punched in the face for fun!" He got his fish that day but he's never been back.
CB: We take people noodling that you'd think are tough — but that aren't.
CB: Holes can be anywhere from 4-12 feet deep. Sometimes just your foot is at the top of the surface. Nathan and I have got such a connection that I can tell a lot just by the way I see his foot swirl. If he's kicking, it's to get a better grip; if he jerks, he's had a hard bite.
Once [while underwater], I got my hand stuck, almost like a Chinese finger trap. With my fist in the catfish's mouth, it was too big to pull out of the hole. Nathan had to swim down and push my elbow, which pushes [the fish] back into the hole and releases your hand. We both know how long the other can be down, so he knew something was going on.
NW: I've been stuck a little bit before. When it happens, I try to keep calm. You can hold your breath a lot longer than you think you can.
CB: When the season starts getting close, we start practicing holding our breath. We dream about this stuff.
CB: The fish we're catching are in the mid-30 to 40 [pounds] range. I've talked to a lot of guys that have never touched a fish over 15 [pounds]. I think we're pretty dagum good.
NW: [On "Amazing Race"] people heard our accents and made assumptions.
CB: "Two redneck noodlers from Tennessee." I think the other teams pegged us for how they thought we would politically lean or how we would react to certain things. But we can have different opinions and still be open to learning.
NW: Cody and I are all about pushing positivity. We try to love everybody. We're all a whole lot more alike than we are different.