River Monsters: Family catches catfish by hand


River Williams, 8, holds up his 43.75-pound flathead catfish up for the crowd after having it weighed in at the Okie Noodling Tournament in Paul’s Valley, Okla. on June 17. (AP Photo)
By: 
The Associated Press

PRAGUE, Okla. (AP) — Flathead catfish are the hardheaded, whiskered, muscle-bound, slick rulers of their watery domain, but one young Oklahoma family grows and thrives on showing Mr. Whiskers who really is the boss.

Nathan Williams, 30, and his boys Jayce, 14, River, 8, and Phierce, 6, are well-known in the noodling world.

River latched on to a 54-pounder when he was 4 — a catch that is a piece of family lore.

Williams didn’t know more than one catfish was in the shallow bank hole, and he thought his son was grabbing one of about 30 pounds.

The youngster knew how to get a stringer through a fish’s gills and had it secured before he pulled it all the way out of the hole. It broke loose from his grip in seconds, but River had the stringer wrapped around his wrist as he had been taught, so he went for a ride, “floaty suit” and all.

“It pulled him out into the channel,” Williams said of the catfish that outweighed his son by almost 20 pounds. “He finally got to a sandbar, and I looked at that fish and said, ‘That ain’t no 35-pounder!’”

Williams has a response for the critics who would say this is simply too dangerous for a child. It’s all about having the right place to fish, doing it safely, having a guide who is experienced and catching enough fish that the boys learn how to handle them, he said.

The family catches hundreds of catfish each summer but keep few. Most are simply photographed and released where they’re caught.

Television appearances and tournaments add incentive, Williams said, but it’s the family involvement that keeps him going.

He decided to start his guiding business after he joined “River Monsters” host Jeremy Wade and caught three 50-plus-pound cats for the Animal Planet television series. But his sons had to be part of it, he said.

“If I couldn’t have them with me when I’m out there, most of the time I wouldn’t go nearly as much,” Williams said.

This year’s world record and tournament wins are only a part of the story.

“It’s a bigger a deal to me that I got my grandma out finally, and she actually caught a really nice fish, too,” he said of 72-year-old Alice June Ives.

The family calls her “Old Nana.”

As she watched her grandson win the Okie Noodling Tournament at Pauls Valley on June 17, Ives bragged a little on her own adventure.

“These are my battle scars,” she said, displaying bruises and cuts on her forearm and hand from fighting her 35-pound flathead. “This is where he slammed me into the concrete, and this is where he bit me.”

Nathan Williams, a middle-school math teacher at Mason Public Schools, devotes his summers to guiding, tournaments and taking the boys outdoors.

Each of the boys caught his first catfish at age 3.

Jayce, Phierce and River crawl, climb and swim in their environment barefoot and fearless. The boys all wear scrapes, cuts and the telltale catfish bites that look like someone raked their skin with a wire brush. All have caught 40-plus pounders.

In the right conditions, namely shallow water, their father can hold them by the feet and direct them down into a hole where, as noodlers like to say, “they are the bait.”

The boys work as a team — a sometimes bickering or complaining or crying team, but an unbreakable chain nonetheless. They look out for one another, depend on one another and have to trust one another.

The boys know all the techniques: how to put a catfish in a headlock, where to grab a smaller fish by the lips and gill covers, how to pin a fish to the ground by the head or the lip or against your chest so that, no matter how hard as it swims, it still isn’t going anywhere.

It may be the domain of a hardheaded fish, but when the fearless Williams family gets in the water, as Nathan says, they “show that catfish who’s boss.”

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