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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

'Hillbilly Handfishin' ' becomes reality for four citified Marylanders

The ideal summer vacation for Jen Grottenthaler typically involves a beach and "drinks with little umbrellas in them." Certainly more adventurous than her former college roommate, Sherry Insley has loved being around the water since the days she used to go sportfishing with her family off Ocean City.

Neither had ever heard of handfishing, or as the locals call it, noodling.

So how did two thirtysomethings with young children living in Baltimore wind up spending nearly a week this summer in an Oklahoma town so small it's not even on the map? And how did they get enticed to submerge themselves in the warm, muddy waters of the Red River to catch catfish with their bare hands?

Welcome to "Hillbilly Handfishin'," Animal Planet's new hit reality show that makes what Billy Crystal did all those years ago in the movie "City Slickers" seem tame.

Grottenthaler and Insley, whose friends started a Facebook fan page called "Noodling Hot Mamas" and who jokingly have considered a spinoff reality show of their own, will be featured in Sunday night's episode along with two University of Maryland students and the owners of a gourmet fish store in Chicago.

The show airs at 10 p.m.

Not that Grottenthaler, 35, will be watching.

"The funny thing is, I don't have cable," said Grottenthaler, who lives with her husband, Chris, and their two daughters, ages 4 and 5, in Locust Point.

Insley, 33, who lives in Baltimore County with her husband, Mitch, and their 2-year old son, said she doubted she would stay up to watch but that a viewing party at a more reasonable hour in the future was in the works.

Nor will Louis Lam, whose nickname "Moose" belies his diminutive stature, watch Sunday night either.

"I have to get up at 6 on Monday," said Lam, a junior electrical engineering major from Gaithersburg who joined his best friend, Kin (Gary) Hulamm, a graduate student in cyber security at Maryland, for the trip to Temple, Okla.

But plenty of others will be caught up in the antics of Skipper Bivins, a lifelong noodler and serial needler, and his sidekick, Trent Jackson. What started out as a business called "Big Fish Adventures" has become a television show in which three pairs of city folks are brought down to the Texas-Oklahoma border "to get out of their regular lives," executive producer Keith Hoffman said.

That was certainly the attraction for Grottenthaler, who found out through a local Listserv that a Silver Spring production company was looking for potential noodlers. The term stems from the fact that noodlers put their hand in a hole to try to pull the catfish out. It is legal in only 13 states but not in Maryland.

Grottenthaler said her involvement "started out as a joke or a dare," something she and Insley had done throughout a friendship that began as students 15 years ago at UMBC.

Past dares were usually benign. A few months after they met, Insley invited Grottenthaler, who had grown up a military brat in Germany and England, to eat hard-shell crabs and go deep-sea fishing. In turn, Grottenthaler invited Insley to her family's home near London and got her friend to dye her then-red hair platinum blond.

"Her mother said I looked like a tart and she wouldn't take me to a family dinner," Insley recalled.

More recently, Insley got Grottenthaler to run in her first five-kilometer race and Grottenthaler signed the two of them up for a Zombies run, in which people in zombie makeup chase runners in the woods, next month in Darlington. Insley then got Grottenthaler to join her for a skeet-shooting and whiskey-tasting event.

"When I saw this, I thought it would really top that," Grottenthaler said of their six-day noodling trip.

It did.

But the more research they tried to do before the trip, the more nervous they became and they nearly backed out.

"Before we left, I was joking around, asking, 'How do I practice, do I grab my slippery son out of the bathtub?" Insley said, adding that she eventually held catfish that were bigger than her son.

Grottenthaler recalled how little sleep they got the first night. Though the accomodations were better than they had anticipated, they were kept awake by the incessant barking of one of Bivins' dogs who are there to chase away the snakes and coyotes.

Insley was a bit more brave than Grottenthaler, who remained on the porch of the cabin.

"We opened the door and I start to go over to the dog and I got halfway out there and I saw something jump up and strike at it," Insley said. "We told Skipper and he said, 'You should have just gone out and killed it with a shovel.' "

Driving to the lake the next morning, Bivins could see their anxiety and gave them some of his peach schnapps to drink. They called it their "courage juice." With 110-degree heat bearing down, the women and their fellow newbie noodlers, dressed in T-shirts, jeans and tube socks, were told to get down on their hands and knees and crawl through the mud to start getting a feel for the catfish.

"It was very scary at first," Grottenthaler said. "Once you get over your fears, it was like, 'I want to catch a fish.' "

Said Insley: "It's like the monster under the bed. It's terrifying at first, but then you get over it."

Grottenthaler said the two hosts were constantly trying to scare them, grabbing a foot or bumping into them underwater on purpose.

"A lot of the screaming was Skipper- or Jackson-induced," she said.

But they came to appreciate Bivins and Jackson, and believe that calling them "hillbillies" is unfair.

"They're cowboys," Insley said. "They rope calves and go to rodeos. The name sets you up to think it's going to be something hillbillyish, and it wasn't at all. They were really nice."

Hulamm said he thinks the name of the show "is kind of derogatory. … They don't come off as hillbillies; these guys are very intelligent."

Acknowledging that the original name of the show was "Catfish Cowboys", Hoffman said, "We try to show that they're the experts."

Along with the noodling, Bivins and Jackson taught their guests how to pitch horseshoes, throw cow chips and lasso.

"I lassoed Moose," Insley said with a laugh.

Now back in College Park, Hulamm and Lam recall how they persuaded their mothers to let them go, even though Hulamm doesn't like to eat fish and was so frightened by some of the noodling videos he watched in advance "that I thought I was going to drown."

Quiet by nature, both students seemed to take on different personalities when trying to catch the catfish. After making their initial catches, Hulamn and Lam painted their faces with the mud from the river. They also gave Jackson "magical" soccer socks to wear in the water and went from shreiking at the sight of the fish to doing their own set of hand gestures to celebrate.

"This was our fight, our war," Hulamm said later, on camera.

Now back in their routines as full-time moms, Grottenthaler and Insley won't divulge how they did ("You've got to watch," Grottenthaler said) or who won the competition for having the largest fish. (Hint, it's one of the Marylanders.)

Sitting in a favorite lunch hangout in Hamilton, Grottenthaler is talking about her daughters having just started kindergarten and preschool. Insley keeps an eye on her son playing nearby.

This summer trip clearly did not include any umbrellas in drinks.

"I definitely feel a little tougher," she said afterward.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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