For more than a decade, a unique group of sportsmen and sportswomen have gathered for the Okie Noodling Tournament, a contest that gives hand fishers, or noodlers, 24 hours to catch the biggest catfish they can wrangle with their bare hands. It started as a promotional event by filmmaker Bradley Beesley, but it has since evolved into a popular occasion in its own right. In 2011, it drew thousands of people to Wacker Park in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma. Photographer Matt Rainwaters was among them.
Initially inspired by the portrait work of Mike Disfarmer, who captured rural Americans in the 1930s and ’40s, Rainwaters traveled to Pauls Valley to photograph the contestants at the tournament. He used only natural light and photographed against a muslin backdrop. “I also really wanted to emulate Richard Avedon’s In the American West style,” Rainwaters said. “It was one of the least technical things I ever shot.”
Rainwaters’ background is in industrial scientific photography, but his career trajectory changed after he shot the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Anchorage, Alaska, which led to the publication of his book, Beard. “I’m kind of attracted to those weird, out-of-the-ordinary American gatherings,” he said. “I’d been tracking the Okie Noodling Tournament for a while. It was crazy how it was growing as a festival. Culturally, you could see how things were popping up related to noodling. It was a cultural trend that was catching on.”
Rainwaters saw the consequences of noodling’s increasing visibility firsthand. At the park, a team from Animal Planet was also there working on its television show, Hillbilly Handfishin’, which pairs veteran noodlers with “city slickers who want nothing more than to surprise themselves — and maybe gross themselves out — by doing things they’d never thought they’d do,” according to Animal Planet’s website. The History Channel, meanwhile, was there shooting Mudcats, a documentary film about the event. This made finding space to photograph and getting the attention of the noodlers a competition in itself. “The only place I could set up was by a row of port-a-potties. It didn’t smell so great as the day went on,” Rainwaters said. “I was about 45 feet away from the weighing station. My wife would go over there and say, ‘When you’re done getting your catfish weighed, come back and have your picture taken.’ There was a bit of a circus to get everyone over to where I was set up.”
Still, Rainwaters managed to get his shots and found the noodlers happy to have their photographs taken. “I guess you could say there’s an element of showmanship,” he said. “Everyone was great, a little quirky and funny.”