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Mano a Fisho

Legal or not, a-noodling they will go


He'd kept the big head in a freezer for two years, waiting to scratch together enough money for a true-to-life trophy. But as the holidays approached, Howard Ramsey was thinking outside the box -- the icebox, that is. The way Ramsey figured, the lifeless head, with its frozen mouth and vacant eyes, would make a dandy centerpiece for a float in the annual Christmas parade.

Ramsey put the frozen head in a cardboard chimney, built an odd-looking Santa, placed Santa's hand in the head's mouth and assembled the entire scene -- Santa pulling a big head out of a chimney -- on a small flatbed trailer. Then Ramsey invited some of his newest best buddies to come to Paris, Mo., the "friendliest town in Little Dixie."

And so it came to pass that on Dec. 7, on Main Street in a small town about 130 miles northwest of St. Louis, there were milkmaids and a marching band, antique cars and a horse-drawn carriage, a homecoming queen -- and Ramsey and his head-grabbing Santa.

Granted, it didn't quite fit the "Twelve Days of Christmas" theme, but Ramsey's float won a few goodnatured chuckles and even a $25 second-place prize. (The six women who showed up as "6 Geesealay'n" took top honors.) As for Ramsey's head -- the remains of a 62-pound flathead catfish he wrestled out of a river in 1998 -- it went back into the freezer.

"I'm going to have it mounted someday, when I can afford it," he says.

For now, though, Howard Ramsey has other fish to fry.

The parade has ended, and Ramsey and his friends have business at the Southern Belle, a tavern on Main Street. It's the place to go for beer served in cans, a round of pool and a meeting of Ramsey's new statewide organization of fishermen. They gather around the big round tables at the Belle, order rounds of Busch, light their cigarettes and talk.

Gather any fishermen and you'll get fish tales, but with Ramsey's group, Noodlers Anonymous, the stories come with a twist and a rumble. Sure, they'll brag, but they prefer that you don't use their real names. Noodlers, you see, catch big catfish by hand. And when they do it in Missouri, they're breaking the law.

What compels these guys to plunge into murky waters, stick their hands into dark holes and hope a fish will bite is unclear, although Beau and Randy -- not their real names -- are happy to offer an explanation. Both are members of a clan near Chillicothe, Mo., that's noodled for more than a generation. An album they've brought includes dozens of pictures of family members posing with trophy catfish. One snapshot memorializes a particularly successful noodling day, when the men pulled out a trifecta of big trophy cats, including an 89-pound blue.

The techniques they employ vary from fish to fish, but Beau says they always begin by locating and identifying an underwater hole where a big cat may be nesting. Then one of the noodlers, the "footer," backs feet-first into the hole to see what's in there. After he makes his report, the designated lead person -- these noodlers always work in teams -- holds his breath, goes down headfirst and gets the fish to chomp down on his hands while others block the fish's escape routes. The big catfish, on his nest, is aggressive and territorial and has rows of tiny teeth that point inward, good enough to get a grip on prey but not big or sharp enough to bite off a finger -- but still enough to scrape a man and draw blood. An experienced noodler, Beau avers, can tell the difference between a blue and a flathead -- a noodler's game fish of choice -- just by the bite. "It's all about feel," Beau says. "A blind man could do this!"

Once the fish clamps down on his hands, the lead man hangs onto the fish's lower lip. With big catfish, that's easier said than done -- the fish's natural instinct is to start turning over and, underwater, the fish has the advantage. Beau and Randy swear a big cat can shake a river and the bank next to it -- they call it "the rumble." ("If you ever hear the rumble, you'll see why we're here," Randy says.) With the lead man gripping the fish, the rest of the team moves in to grab and subdue the fish long enough to pass a rope through the creature's mouth and gills. They haul the fish to shore to be, as Beau says, "dressed like a hog" and turned into catfish fillets. (Beau says about 40 percent of a big fish can be eaten.)

A powerfully built farmer and logger, Beau proudly displays scars from years of encounters with big cats. His hands are covered with telltale marks, and a patch of skin near his left elbow is discolored. That's where a 52-pounder caught him by surprise by attacking from the side. "I thought he was here" -- Beau points in one direction, then another -- "but he was here. The fish moved on me!" Larry, another noodler, chimes in with color commentary: "He fucked up."

Think of noodling as an underwater equivalent of pro wrestling, except the fights aren't fixed. There are no fancy rods and reels, no secret stink-bait recipes, no expensive doodads and gizmos. "All we're going with is underwear and rope," Randy says. It's raw physicality, instinct and teamwork. "You gotta trust people with your life. It's bonding; it's camaraderie that you don't get in a lot of sports." And it's not only for men; Randy's wife, who married into the clan, is credited with successfully noodling a 42-pounder.

The Chillicothe hand-fishermen have their methods, and Ramsey has his. In fact, there are a number of variations on the theme. In some places in the South, hand-fishermen jam an arm down the cat's throat, then flip the fish onto a boat.

Ramsey says his technique has changed over the years. He used to go in headfirst and grab the biggest fish he felt. "Then I started backing out of the hole, (then) turn around once I got out of the hole and wrap both legs around the fish's tail and push off the bottom and come to the top and hope there was somebody there to catch me." Now, there's a little more planning and teamwork. Ramsey says he's been in holes so deep that he had one guy holding his ankles as a third man held onto the second man's.

Many a fish has slipped away, but the only time noodling was a disaster for Ramsey was the day nine years ago when the law caught him wet-handed with seven flatheads he'd pulled out of the Elk Fork of the Salt River. It wasn't the number of fish that got him arrested; rather, it was the fact he caught them by hand. Ramsey knew he was breaking the law, but let's just say he didn't have a high opinion of the regulatory scheme of things; he was convicted of a misdemeanor and fined $500. The fine was bad enough, but what really bothered Ramsey was that "the game warden was standing on the bank and watching me when I caught the first fish," he says. "He could have arrested me then, but he watched me catch six more before he arrested me." Ramsey says the warden -- "he's dead now, so I can't talk too bad about him" -- brought the fish he'd confiscated to court as evidence and "laid "em out on the judge's desk." All Ramsey had to show for his hard work was spoiled meat and a hefty dent in his wallet.

Ramsey knew the next time he was caught noodling, he'd probably end up serving some jail time, and that made him angry.

Getting busted was a reminder of how he resented the ban on hand-fishing; how the ban, which was inexplicably imposed when the Missouri Department of Conservation was created in 1938, was at odds with family traditions stretching over several generations. Ramsey, who noodled his first fish when he was 12, in 1958, learned from his father, and his father learned from his father-in-law. Ramsey knew other Missourians who illegally noodled, just like their fathers and mothers before them. They were prominent folks, including lawyers and judges in town, not just "hill folks and rednecks," Ramsey says. He knew that hand-fishing was legal in other states, including Illinois. And he knew that in most of the South, the tradition -- known variously as grabbling, dogging, guddling and hogging -- was not only legal but celebrated in folklore, studied in universities and documented in national broadcast reports. If something's good enough for, say, Arkansas and Mississippi, why not Missouri?

Ramsey, a maintenance worker at nearby Mark Twain State Park, resolved to change the law, but it took a heart attack in the summer of 1999 to give him the time to launch his movement. As he recovered, he researched regulations in other states, contacted and wooed a leading national catfish expert and requested a meeting with the regulations committee of the Conservation Department. In August, Ramsey asked the committee to recommend making hand-fishing legal with strict limits, including no grappling hooks, no artificial structures like boxes and barrels, and limits on fish harvests. The request is being evaluated, and if Ramsey gets what he wants, the committee will make a recommendation in March to the four-member Missouri Conservation Commission and the commissioners will approve a two-month noodling season, beginning in June 2002.

Ramsey's taking no chances on the liberality of state officials, so he's trying to build a movement. He's sent letters to the state's newspapers and contacted other outdoors groups to build support. He's won an endorsement from the Conservation Federation of Missouri and, at his urging, the Farm Bureau this month approved a resolution supporting legalized hand-fishing. Other noodlers have rallied to Ramsey's cause, and he decided they needed to be organized. "One day, we were up at the tavern, everybody sitting around, and we said, "We might as well start a club,' and everybody just started signing their names." Noodlers Anonymous, which had its first meeting in October, already counts about 60 members (dues are pegged at 25 cents), and Ramsey hasn't even made a push into southern Missouri.

It's a good thing the noodlers are anonymous, because convincing Conservation Department officials to change the wildlife regulations could prove harder than wrestling a 62-pound fish. The regulations committee assigned the task of evaluating Ramsey's request to the department's top fish folks, including Marlyn Miller, fisheries-programs supervisor. Miller, who is gathering information for a report on the hand-fishing request, is not the sympathetic sort. He says hand-fishing has long been viewed as not very sporting because it takes advantage of the fish when it's reproducing. Flathead catfish prepare for spawning by finding a protected nesting site -- an old hollow log, caves in riverbanks, an old sunken car body -- and clean the site by fanning out debris. The female deposits a mass of eggs, as many as 100,000, and the male remains behind to protect the fertilized eggs and even sticks around for a few days to guard the hatchlings. Because the male instinctively guards the nest -- even when confronted with great danger -- noodlers are exploiting the fish's inability to desert its young.

"It hasn't been viewed as fair chase. You're essentially ripping an animal out of its home while it's guarding its young," Miller says. "It's sort of like shooting a hen turkey off her nest." Even if a noodler aggravates a fish enough to chase it away, the fish will return in a matter of time. "If there are eggs there, it's going to come back and protect them." Of course, there's nothing to stop a pole-and-line fisherman or someone who fishes with jugs or trotlines from going after the same nesting fish, but Miller says, as a practical matter, those methods don't impose on the fish. "Enticing a fish to hit a lure or hit some bait is different than just grabbing them. It's a matter of skill and ability -- and choice by the animal, too."

In Miller's estimation, a noodler in Missouri is no better than a hunter who dazes a deer with a bright light in order to make the animal an easy target. And the fact that noodling is a family tradition doesn't impress him, either. "You know, there have been people who've been moonshining for generations. There are people, you know, where Dad's a thief and the kid becomes a thief. They can glorify it any way they want, but in this state, (noodlers) are poachers."

That harsh assessment doesn't trouble Ramsey. Are noodlers poachers? "We are. It's illegal. What else could you call us? That's why we've started this movement, because we want to make it legal." But what really bothers Ramsey is any suggestion that noodling isn't fair chase. "If anybody thinks that a 50- or 60-pound flathead or blue cat is vulnerable, let them get in a hole with them and see. True, the fish are protecting a nest, but at the same time, they're real aggressive, and just because you find a hole and find the fish doesn't mean you're going to catch 'em." In hand-to-fin combat, Ramsey notes, it's the noodler who's at a disadvantage. The proof is in the water, he says: Missourians have been hand-fishing for generations, and, as far as he can tell, the population of big catfish hasn't suffered as a result. If anything, the big flatheads are causing trouble for other species.

Donald Jackson, a Mississippi State University professor who testified before the regulations committee at Ramsey's invitation, has studied catfish and noodling, and his findings suggest that some rivers and streams can become "predator-crowded" with big flatheads, hurting other fish populations. That's been Ramsey's experience: In May, he says, he was pole-fishing for channel cat in the Elk Fork of the Salt River; before he pulled his small fish to shore, seven 25- to 35-pound flatheads grabbed the channel cats.

But Miller insists there's no evidence that shows Missouri has an overabundance of big catfish, and some fishermen -- jug fishermen, trotliners and pole-and-line men -- report a drop in catches of big flatheads in places like Truman Lake. The results of a thorough study of the state's catfish population, which is under way, could mean that instead of allowing noodling, the Conservation Department may impose new restrictions on already legal methods. But right now, everything the state and Ramsey seem to know about Missouri's catfish population is a matter of conjecture.

And nobody really knows how many noodlers there are or how many more fish they would take if hand-fishing were legalized, though there's some anecdotal evidence. Beau, for example, says that in a very good year, he'll catch six or seven big catfish by hand. This year was a good year. Other years, such as the flood years of 1993 and 1995, are busts. Making it legal for Beau to noodle probably wouldn't make a difference; he's been doing it in Missouri for the past 34 years, and he vows to keep doing it, one way or another. "You might catch me eventually, but you're not going to stop me," he says.

As for Ramsey, officially he does all his noodling in Illinois. Even if hand-fishing is legalized here, he doesn't expect "any more people getting in the water and doing it."

On that point, at least, there's no disagreement.

"It's not a form of recreation that a whole bunch of people are going to get into," Miller says.

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