Noodlers Anonymous takes its fight to the Capitol
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Noodlers Anonymous takes its fight to the Capitol

Date: May 4, 2011
By: Christi Warren
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 150

JEFFERSON CITY - Noodling, grabbling, hogging — whatever you call it, the sport of hand-fishing is illegal in Missouri.

In some areas of the state, noodling is a family tradition, regardless of its legal status. Generation after generation of hand-fishermen have waded into the muddiest water they can find and blindly cast their arms into holes in the hope of snagging a catfish.

The fact that it's been illegal since 1919 seems to do little to faze the sport's dedicated fans.

Case in point: Gary Webb.

Webb has been noodling his entire life. He and the other members of Noodlers Anonymous, a hand-fishing activist group, have taken their struggle over the sport's legalization to Jefferson City and straight to the steps of the Capitol building.

Webb's experience with hand-fishing began at the age of 7 when he was first taught its ins and outs.

After four years of catching carp in the rivers and creeks near his home, Webb was ready; by the time he was 12 years old, he had caught his first catfish.

"It was right close to our favorite swimming hole, so I knew where this hollow log was," Webb said. "I went over, and I pulled this fish out and got my legs around it, and I got both hands in its mouth and got a scissor hold on it."

Webb wrestled with the fish until he had control of it, at which point his 5-year-old brother pulled him, fish in hands, from the water.

"He got a hold of the hair on my head and pulled me over to where I could get my back on the bank," Webb said. "We got that fish tied up, and I walked mine home and showed my dad and mom. I walked a half mile just to show them my prize."

The role of hand-fishing in Webb's life has changed over the years, evolving from a passive hobby to a passionate cause — one that led him to become the historian for Noodlers Anonymous.

The group's attempts to legalize hand-fishing in the state began in 1999, from which point their efforts have been tireless and briefly successful.

During spring 2004, after five years of seemingly futile meetings with members of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the noodlers were granted a trial period of legalized hand-fishing.

Dubbed an "experimental hand-fishing season," it was to last for five years, beginning in summer 2005, during which the state's hand-fishing enthusiasts would be allowed to fish during June and July on the Fabius, Mississippi and St. Francis rivers.

After its second season, the Department of Conservation pulled the plug on the experiment and deemed it unsafe to the population levels of what they said are some of Missouri's most sought-after fish.

The Conservation Department's Fisheries Division Chief Chris Vitello said the department's position against noodling is out of concern for the survival of the catfish population. He said the department has conducted studies on the consequences of removing catfish from their nests during the months of June and July, their spawning period.

"At that time, when it's the next generation of catfish for that particular fish, and perhaps for that particular stretch of stream or that part of the reservoir ... by removing that fish, those eggs have a very, very, very slim chance, virtually no chance, of developing and producing young-of-the-year fish," Vitello said.

Although he acknowledged the department has never conducted a study that shows a direct correlation between hand-fishing and a decrease in catfish population, Vitello said other studies have led them to believe there would be a decrease.

Vitello cited a controlled experiment, conducted by the department, in which they removed catfish from their nests to replicate and understand the consequences noodling would have on the catfish population.

He said the study found that after adult fish had been removed from nests, the water would become stagnant, which stopped the flow of oxygenated water over the nest and allowed for a fungus to grow on, and subsequently kill, the eggs.

As in past years, noodling advocates have pushed lawmakers to legalize their sport — an idea that has gained little traction in Missouri's General Assembly except as a topic for occasional legislative jokes when the measure has reached the full chamber for debate.

Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, has sponsored a bill that calls for the creation of a legal noodling season. During the months of June and July, noodlers would be allowed to catch a season-total of five fish, which is 15 fewer than the daily amount allowed for standard rod-and-reel anglers.

Munzlinger suggested the Department of Conservation's opposition stems from the absence of a revenue stream from noodling, as opposed to more traditional means of fishing.

"If you're hand-fishing, you don't have to buy lure, you don't have to buy a rod-and-reel, you don't have to buy hooks, you don't have to buy bait. Therefore, you don't give any real tax money to support the sportsmen," Munzlinger said.

Nationally, conservation agencies in other state are split on whether to legalize the sport of hand-fishing.

It is currently legal in six of Missouri's bordering states, including Oklahoma, where one of the largest hand-fishing tournaments in the nation is held.

But just a little farther south in Texas, it isn't. However, Chief of Fisheries Management and Research for Texas Parks and Wildlife Dave Terre said they are open to exploring the topic.

For die-hards such as Webb, the sport's legal status doesn't really make a difference.

For Noodlers Anonymous, he said, it's about family, it's about tradition, it's about the thrill of the catch —  and they'll never stop noodling.