By Donna Harris/The Associated Press
GULFPORT — Before a Gulfport flight attendant caught an Oklahoma catfish with his big toe, he was just a noodling wannabe.
Daniel James III had never watched “Hillbilly Handfishin'” before he auditioned to be on the reality series on Animal Planet.
After the 33-year-old James learned he’d made the show, he researched it and was shocked at what he was expected to do.
Hosts Skipper Bivins and Trent Jackson lead two teams of city slickers into muddy rivers, lakes and streams with the goal of catching catfish with only their hands and feet.
The sport is called noodling, or handfishing, and it is legal in 11 states.
James, a 1998 graduate of Gulfport High School, left South Mississippi for Los Angeles nearly four years ago with big dreams and no job.
He wanted to be famous, even if it meant leaving his father, Dan James Jr., his grandmother, Ruthie McGee, and his sister, Kemberli James Brown, behind in Orange Grove.
Soon after moving to California, he scored a spot on ABC’s “Crash Course.”
He had a bit part in a restaurant scene in the movie “Date Night” with Tina Fey and Steve Carell and he’s in a Dr. Pepper commercial.
Not long ago, a casting director he’d met on the ABC game show told him he’d be perfect for “Hillbilly Handfishin’.”
Hiking through the woods of Oklahoma, where he saw grasshoppers he said were as big as his head, he wondered if “perfect” was something he wanted to be.
Picked to go first, James listened to the warnings to keep his head away from the bank of the river to avoid bites from beavers or snakes.
With only a double layer of socks between his foot and an angry catfish, James prepared to go in the water.
The crew found a hole they suspected held a catfish guarding a nest of eggs.
James is 6-foot-3 but even with the thick, red water slapping at his chin, he couldn’t reach the nest with his foot.
He heard one of the hosts say the unthinkable: “We’re going to shove you in this hole.”
Holding his breath, he let them wedge him into
the hole. He wiggled his foot, hoping the catfish would mistake his toes for bait. It did.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God,'” he said.
When the catfish latched onto his toe, James waved his hand over his head to signal the crew to be ready.
“Any sudden moves that I make, he’s latching on harder,” he said of the fish.
He lost the catfish before he could grab it with his hands and had to go deeper in the hole to try again.
The second attempt was a bust as well.
Wiggling his toes for a third time, he tempted the aggravated catfish to nibble.
“The madder they are, the harder they chomp,” he said.
While the catfish gnawed on his left foot, James slid his right foot under its chin and wedged his toes into the fish’s gills.
His technique worked.
Before they released the 34-pound daddy catfish back into the water, James gave it a congratulatory kiss.
He has a newfound appreciation for the species, he said.
James wowed the producers, who want to cast him in his own reality show. He’s done some filming for it already, but he can’t talk about it until it’s picked up by a network.