NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- At least I had been warned.
When I agreed to meet Jake Waddell -- aka Catfish Jake -- on Friday morning before the Nashville Predators' first game of their second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets, he messaged me: "Hope the smell of fish in the morning doesn't bother you."
We arrived at 9:30 a.m. local time, just when Little's Fish Market opened. The store was in the Germantown neighborhood, on a leafy street. It was a white-painted brick building with cute blue font -- much quieter than I expected. Two women strolled in behind us, chatting about what they were cooking for their families that night.
When Waddell and I got to the counter, the raw stench -- the pure salinity -- overwhelmed me. A 35-pounder was on display, wrapped in a Predators-logo towel. The man behind the counter explained that the only customers who would buy that were looking to make stews.
Waddell looked at the row of catfish.
"That one is no good," he said, pointing to the fish in the front with a bone sticking out. "Try to grab that one and it'll just shank ya!"
He identified a poor sucker lying in the middle, but when it was weighed at 5 pounds, Waddell asked for something smaller.
"Remember," he said. "I'm gonna have to walk with this in my pants."
The catfish throw has become a staple at Predators games, in the same slimy vein as the octopus toss in Detroit (the Red Wings tradition began in 1952). Nashville restaurant owner Bob Wolf reportedly was first, slinging a catfish at Bridgestone Arena in the Predators' inaugural season, 1998-99. It has been a regular thing since at least 2003.
"It's just a quirky, fun thing we do down South," said center Colton Sissons, an adopted Southerner by way of British Columbia. "The fans seem to love it, so as players, we do, too."
When asked whether opponents roll their eyes in frustration when the game must be stopped to clean up, Sissons said: "Without a doubt. But we don't care."
"Before I got here, I actually thought it was awesome," said center Kyle Turris, who came to Nashville via a trade with the Ottawa Senators in November. "I've never been close enough to one to smell it, so I can't speak to that, but I think it's such a cool tradition."
Waddell agreed to let ESPN follow him as he purchased the fish, stuffed it into his jeans and smuggled it into the arena, letting us get an inside look at the process. Waddell was the obvious choice because he's actually quite famous in Nashville -- and infamous everywhere else.
For Game 1 of last season's Stanley Cup Final against the Penguins, Waddell flattened a catfish with a truck, sprayed it with Old Spice, then transported it in a cooler to Pittsburgh. He then hurled it over the glass at PPG Paints Arena. Play in the second period was stopped as arena staffers shoveled up the fish.
Security escorted Waddell out of the game, and he was charged in Allegheny County with possessing instruments of crime, disrupting a meeting and disorderly conduct. All the while, dozens of Predators fans pledged to pay his fine and pushed for a pardon in his case.
"They didn't end up arresting me, just detained me for a few hours and let me go," Waddell said. "I thought it was hilarious. Guess Pittsburgh doesn't have the same sense of humor."
"Instruments of crime" quickly morphed into a slogan, though Waddell doesn't feel he can trademark it.
"I didn't because with it being an actual crime, I don't know you can trademark it. ... I've been around enough criminals to figure that out," he joked.
The Predators had no problem unveiling a new fish tank in the concourse during these playoffs featuring four catfish (one per series the team has to win) and those three words printed in bold lettering. Waddell, for the record, loves the tank.
He also vowed to repeat his antics this postseason. Waddell secured tickets (for a flight and the games) to Denver for the Predators' first-round matchup with the Colorado Avalanche. He brought the catfish in his carry-on. After Waddell threw it on the ice, one Avalanche fan briefly tried to fight him and another poured beer on him. Security, Waddell said, "was really cool" but still escorted him out.
Waddell has decided to transform his pranks into a good deed: He tries to raise money around his antics and launched the Catfish Jake Foundation, which raised $7,500 to help people locally, as well as children during Christmastime.
The 37-year-old wanted to make the trip to Winnipeg for the Predators' conference semifinal against the Jets, but he couldn't get his passport in time. So instead, he figured he'd do something he never had before: throw a catfish at home.
"Obviously the people here are a little more relaxed," he said. "But it's still gonna be a thing to get it in."
We met about an hour before puck drop outside Bridgestone Arena. He had kept the fish in a cooler all day.
Waddell was attending the game with Troy McElwee Jr., the same man who went to Game 1 of the Final last year with him. In a plaza featuring a live band, beer and food vendors, a bungee trampoline and no fewer than a dozen security guards and police officers within a 100-square-foot radius, Waddell unfurled the instrument of crime.
He decided the sidewalk behind a tent for local radio station 102.5 The Game was the perfect place to do this; he neither asked for permission nor did the two women working the booth care -- in fact, one of them waffled between bursting out in giggles and covering her face in disgust.
The fish was wrapped in a zip-top bag inside another plastic bag. Waddell opened the outside bag and poured the pink catfish juices onto the sidewalk. It reeked. He then opened the fish and put stickers for the radio station onto the bone. With the stickers not-so-neatly plopped onto the fish's scales, Waddell pressed the air out of the remaining zip-top bag.
As the dead fish shifted in the bag, I couldn't help but fixate on its small, metallic eyes. I swear it had a complicit stare.
Waddell stood up and unbuckled his belt. He stuffed the catfish into the backside of his pants. It took about three minutes of jiggling before it was secure.
"This is the one time in my life I wish I owned skinny jeans," he said.
As he stood up straight and zipped up his jacket, McElwee and I couldn't help but giggle. It looked as if Waddell had strapped a six-pack of beer to his back; it was quite obvious he was smuggling something.
So Waddell tried again. This time he tried stuffing it in the front of his jeans. Eventually, he let the fish slide down his left pant leg. This was it, we decided. It looked legit enough.
He sauntered into the arena as if his right leg was asleep. The limp was noticeable, but the entire walk through the security line was seamless. The fish was in.
The plan was to throw the catfish after the national anthem, sung by Dierks Bentley. Waddell had friends who were sitting in front of him, and he got a few texts pleading with him not to hit them by accident. Waddell and McElwee left their seats in the 300 level and stationed themselves in a 100-level section. Waddell gripped the fish by its gullet, wound up and then suddenly it was on the ice.
After the first period, I met Waddell in the concourse to hear the details. He had a huge smile on his face and high-fived me as soon as he saw me.
My hand smelled the rest of the night.