Travel Reviews

Noodling For Flatheads
by Burkhard Bilger
Scribner, 2000


“Hey, Dad, I’m reading this book about men who stick their hands down in the water, wiggle their fingers, let catfish grab them and then yank them out of the water.  Would you like to read it after I’m through with it?” I ask over the phone.

“You bet, son.  You know, my father used to do that.”

“You’re kidding?  Really?”

“Yeah, sure.   Only, he called it 'hogging.'  He told us once how he went down to Lake City, Arkansas and entered one of the caves down along the river.  Those caves were full of catfish that were stranded when the water went down.  Well, he went in one cave where it was dark but he could just make out a log nearby and went to stand on it so he could bend over and go 'hogging,' when suddenly the log swam away from him when he tried to step on it.   I was a giant catfish!”

In one paragraph my father confirmed three things I had read in Bilger’s book: #1-the reality of “noodling”, #2-the renaming of it in different parts of the county, (called “noodling” in Oklahoma, “hogging” in Arkansas where my dad grew up) and #3-the stories of giant catfish and their history. 

I have to tell you, I was impressed.  So I read further.  What I found was a compelling narrative of men and women of the South who pursued hobbies and pastimes that most would find unusual to say the least, but which these individuals were most passionate about.  From moonshining to cockfighting to marble-playing, the folks whose stories were told within these pages were willing to give it their all to be the best at what they did.  It is a thread of consistency that runs all the way through Bilger’s book.

And don’t think that he glamorizes anything in the process.  No, these are real people and they have real lives, just like you and I.  In this subculture of the South which Bilger explores, there are lawful and unlawful acts, achievements and disappointments, sickness and suicide, humor and irony.  All of which is put into a wonderful perspective by an author who pulls in historical accounts, folk stories, modern-day medical practice and tediously researched facts, making the stories he tells more than one man’s whimsical tales.

From crashing around in the woods, coonhunting, to sitting down at a table to eat hog chitlins, the author does it all.  He is not just a spectator either, as he explores the dark netherworld of moonshining, doing interviews with both law enforcement officers and also those doing the bootlegging, putting his life in possible jeopardy in order to obtain his story.

His willingness to go this extra mile is what gives the book its credence and also makes it an absorbing read for the Southern in fact and the Southern at heart.


Robert L. Hall
Southern Scribe Reviews

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