Wrestle catfish from the depths Legal trial for controversial legal pastime
First you strip to the waist and clamber into the river. Next, you bend under water and rootle blindly along the muddy riverbank with your bare hands. When you find a promising hole, you waggle your fingers – or toes – so alluringly that a large catfish locks its jaws around your arm or leg. Then you simply wrestle the 100lbs (45kg) giant out of the water and serve it fried with cayenne pepper.
For the first time for nearly 100 years in Missouri the sport of noodling, fishing by hand for these brutally ugly creatures, will be legalised this week. Also known as hogging, grabbling, dogging and stumping, the practice will be allowed for a trial period of six weeks from Wednesday on the Mississippi and two other waterways in the famous river state.
The ruling has been greeted with joy by its secretive proponents, Noodlers Anonymous, a campaign group set up by several hundred noodlers, who claimed their illicit “ancient art” made them an oppressed minority in the state.
For conservationists, however, the legalisation of noodling threatens to accelerate the declining numbers of flathead and blue catfish.
“Cats” are a popular delicacy in the rural corners of the southern and midwest states of America; historians record that southern American Indians used to dive down and catch the fish by hand, a tradition of fishing without hook or line taken up by rural settlers across the region.
Grabbing mature catfish up to 5ft (1.5m) long and 30 years old with your bare hands has been described as the ultimate fishing thrill, an adrenalin-fuelled extreme sport.
It is thought that the name noodler is derived from southern slang for crazy fool. Some noodlers have drowned trying to grab big catfish while many bear the scars of their sport, including missing fingers bitten off by the fish – or snapping turtles and beavers that take umbrage at being disturbed.
The sport is now legal in 13 states, including Arkansas and Oklahoma, but has been banned since 1919 in Missouri, where those caught noodling have faced up to $1,000 (about £550) fines. After a series of annual legislative battles in Missouri’s state parliament, the state’s department of conservation finally granted an experimental six-week season from sunrise to sunset on limited stretches of the Mississippi, the St Francis and the Fabius rivers.
The impact of noodling on catfish stocks will be monitored closely, but it has not allayed the fears of conservationists. They argue that the practice affects numbers particularly badly because noodlers target mature, breeding-age fish just at the time when they are retreating to natural cavities in the riverbank to nest. By catching the female catfish or the male that guards its brood, they may effectively kill off a whole family of young fish.
Noodlers talk of “meeting the fish on its terms”, pitting their intimate knowledge of the local waters against the wit of individual catfish that command certain river territories and have eluded capture for years. According to Mark Morgan, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, there are 2,000 noodlers in the state. Most are men from the countryside, where noodling knowledge has been passed down through the generations.
Noodlers claim there are so few fishermen and women – a former Miss Teen USA is a keen practitioner – prepared to stick their hands into the mouths of catfish that the impact of noodling on stocks will be negligible. Last week, just 21 noodlers in Missouri had purchased $7 licences to begin legal noodling. Nearly half these permits were issued to Howard Ramsey, the president of Noodlers Anonymous.
Welcoming the legal season as a “very positive step”, Mr Ramsey, 59, said he bought eight permits for his wife, son, granddaughters and himself.
“If you don’t come up bloody, you ain’t been hand-fishing,” Mr Ramsey told AP. First taught aged 12 by his father and grandfather, he described how he caught the creatures by swimming headfirst into a catfish hole while a friend held him by the ankles, ready to pull him and the catfish out of the murky depths. It is a technique that has brought him plenty of pain over the years.
“I’ve had them clamp down so tight on my arm that I didn’t know if they’d ever let go,” he told the Kansas City Star. “They have rows of tiny teeth, and when you try to pull your arm out of their mouth, they’ll just skin you. I even had one fish that tore my tennis shoe right off my foot. I couldn’t walk for a couple days. But that’s all part of it. When you pull a 50 to 60lb flathead out of a hole by hand and your heart starts thumping, you know it’s worth it.”
Steve Eder of the Missouri Department of Conservation said catfish numbers had fallen in northern parts of the state in particular, where streams have been turned into channels, removing the riverbank habitat where the fish can breed.
“There aren’t that many flatheads per square mile to start with. If we legalise hand fishing, that could further reduce the densities of big fish,” he told the US press. “Hand fishermen do seem to be more efficient at taking big fish than other types of fishermen. And that could be a problem