Noodling for Fish
Posted on May 30th, 2011
This Strange, Illegal Sport Continues in Ozark Streams
By L. D. Rawson
Some traditions die hard, and noodling for catfish in Missouri rivers and streams is certainly one of these. Even though it’s been illegal in Missouri since the early 1900s, diehard noodlers can be seen wading along the banks of small rivers and streams in search of huge Flathead and blue catfish.
Historians point out that the “sport” was first practiced by Native Americans before becoming popular with others during the depression years when money for food was short. Also known as cat fisting, hand fishing, hogging, grabbing and stumping, it consists of thrusting an arm into the nesting or resting area of a large catfish, encouraging it to defensively grab fingers or take the hand (or sometimes arm!) into its teeth-filled mouth so it can be wrestled to the surface. The “fisherman” may be reaching down into murky holes from chest-high water or diving down as deep as 20 feet. Keep in mind, the big fish being sought is snuggled into a bank, log and brushy area that may house a beaver or muskrat, poisonous snake or an iron-jawed snapping turtle. At the same time, the angry catfish may be as old as 25 years and weigh 60 pounds or more. (In streams near large waterways, fish have been caught that weighed more than 100 pounds.) It’s all good reason why the sport is only practiced today by less than an estimated 2,000 hardy, arm-scarred Missourians.
There’s also good reason why the Missouri Department of Conservation insists on blocking any moves to legalize noodling even though about a dozen other states condone it. Big flatheads and blues work their way up into smaller waterways to nest and lay eggs from June through August. They then stay on the nest until hatching occurs. Regardless of size, only small amounts of eggs are produced compared to other fish varieties. If the catfish is removed, the eggs in the uncovered nests are soon lost. Needless to say, this spawning period is favored by noodlers when it’s easier to locate their quarry.
MDC was convinced to provide a trial program on parts of three rivers back in 2005 and 2006, but research indicated it was proving too detrimental to the catfish population. The experiment was quickly abandoned along with any plans for legalizing the sport. Although a lobby continues for its legalization, MDC officials seem to be standing firm in their ruling. Regardless, this strange, unique activity known as noodling will always hold its place as a famed Ozarks tradition.