COLUMBIA, Mo. – Mark Morgan has no desire to catch fish with his bare hands, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming an expert on the controversial sport of hand fishing, also known as “noodling.”
Noodlers land catfish without rod, reel or other equipment. When you’re noodling, your hands are the bait, so when the fish are biting, they’re biting you. Noodling is legal in only about a dozen states, not including Missouri.
Morgan, assistant professor in the University of Missouri’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, has published a study of noodling in the April 2008 issue of the journal Fisheries.
His article, “Outlaw Fishing in Missouri,” comes at a low point for Missouri noodlers. In 2007 the Missouri Department of Conservation terminated a five-year experiment in legal hand fishing after only two years, despite the lack of evidence to show that noodling had a negative effect on catfish populations, Morgan said.
Morgan emphasizes that he’s not a noodling advocate, even though bills to legalize noodling in Missouri have cited his own research. “I’m not supporting their cause. I’m just studying their cause,” Morgan said.
However, he does believe that noodlers are a misunderstood community. “They’ve been characterized as poachers, villains, outlaws and so forth,” he said. “But there’s a different dimension to hand fishing that other people might want to know something about.”
For Morgan, noodlers represent a fascinating subculture that has persisted in the face of both legal prohibitions and disdain from other anglers. “Rod-and-reel anglers denigrate the efforts of noodlers,” he said. “Conventional catfish anglers don’t want to be around noodlers and don’t want to be associated with them.”
Missouri banned noodling in 1919 during a period when states were beginning to impose seasonal limits on hunters and anglers as well as prohibiting certain methods of hunting and fishing.
Over the past decade a group called Noodlers Anonymous has lobbied the Missouri Department of Conservation and state legislators to legalize noodling. Noodlers have plied elected officials with everything from scientific papers to DVDs and bumper stickers.
Morgan sees an irony in the long-running conflict between hand fishers and the Missouri Department of Conservation. With sales of hunting and fishing licenses declining in many states, conservation agencies are implementing recruitment and retention programs for young hunters and anglers. Missouri has special youth hunting seasons, holds kids’ fishing days, and has tailored the state’s hunter-education program to create more opportunities for experienced hunters to mentor youth.
“I think that noodlers have a lot to teach us. Noodling has been one of those traditions that have hung on in rural society. It involves socialization and mentoring between generations,” Morgan said.
“The hand fishing ‘model’ is successful because participants start young and keep on doing it well into adulthood,” he said. “In fact, the average noodler has participated in this activity for two-thirds of his or her life. There are not many activities that adults still practice that were started in childhood. This outcome is a goal for MDC and other conservation agencies.”
Not that Morgan recommends noodling. “I’ve had some offers to practice this sport but I’ve declined each one of them,” he said. “I told the noodlers I need all 10 fingers for typing and other work.”
For noodlers, however, risk is part of the appeal. “That’s part of the thrill-seeking nature of the sport,” he said. “A lot of the hand fishers have scars to show for their activity. They call it ‘river rash,’ and they’re kind of proud of it. It’s evidence they had a big tussle with a fish.”
It’s the effects of that tussle that worry Missouri conservation officials. While hand fishing probably accounts for a small percentage of Missouri’s total catfish harvest, MDC officials contend that noodlers disproportionately affect the catfish population by targeting large fish when they are guarding their nests. The frequent result of noodling, Morgan said, is not just the capture of one fish but the complete destruction of its nest.
The Missouri House and Senate have passed bills and resolutions calling for legalized hand fishing, but the state constitution gives MDC final authority on hunting and fishing regulations. Lifting the noodling ban through legislation would require a constitutional amendment-an undertaking that might be more difficult than landing a 50-pound flathead catfish with your bare hands.
Morgan doesn’t think that will deter the noodlers. “I don’t think they will ever give up,” he said.
Writer: Curt Wohleber