Deep beneath the electric-green pond on Howard Ramsey's spread near Paris, Missouri, lurks the 64-pound flathead catfish he caught last year. Still swimming ten months after the catch, Ramsey's quarry does not owe its continued existence to an angler's sentimental tribute to a worthy adversary.
Ramsey just has other plans for his fish.
"We have in Paris every year what we call 'Fall into Paris,'" says the mustachioed Ramsey, who has lived in this wooded nook about two hours northwest of St. Louis for the past twelve of his sixty-one years. "We were going to have a booth up there, and we were going to sell catfish to eat, but we were also going to have a tank with a big flathead and a big blue catfish."
Unfortunately, Ramsey's plan to show off his catch hit a snag when he was unable to extract the monster cat from the pond behind his home. Today he concedes that if he ever manages to recapture the flathead, he might return it to its native river. So far, though, he hasn't been able to bring himself to let the fish go.
That might have something to do with how he caught it.
"This fish was about six or eight foot back in a hollow log," Ramsey explains. "So my son pushed me into the hole headfirst and grabbed my ankles."
Wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, Ramsey found himself submerged in the river's cloudy water and nose to nose with the fish, which was guarding its cache of eggs. Ramsey put his hands in front of him as he approached, inducing the flathead to attack with its weapon-like lower jaw.
In other words, he had that catfish right where he wanted him.
"He's chewing me any place he can grab," Ramsey says. "Then I put both hands in his lower jaw, and"
Thinking better of divulging a bit of hard-won strategy, the fisherman says tersely: "Well, I'm not going to tell you all the secrets."
With a kick of his feet, Ramsey signaled his son, Mark, to pull him to the surface. But the younger Ramsey pulled too fast, and the silver-haired angler lost his grip.
Surfacing, Ramsey and his son rushed to seal the log's opening. They could hear a portentous whomp! whomp! whomp! from inside the log the warning sound catfish make by rushing water over their gills.
By now Ramsey's hands and wrists were bleeding from their encounter with the cat's coarse, sandpaper-like teeth a condition known to the initiated as "river rash." Still, he persevered.
Whatever it took, Ramsey was going to noodle this fish.
Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!
"My son shoved me back in the hole again. The cat's chewing on me, but I finally got both hands in his mouth, kicked my feet and my son pulled me back out," Ramsey says. "I inverted myself at that time with both hands in his mouth, and wrapped my legs around the fish's tail. My son actually grabbed my entire body and held my head up out of the water with the fish in my lap.
"I've got that on video," he adds.
After nearly half a century spent noodling in Missouri's rivers, Ramsey's arms are cross-hatched with catfish battle scars. His right shoulder carries a catfish tattoo, and his truck's vanity plate reads, "GRAB ON" noodler lingo for sticking one's hand inside a catfish's mouth.
"I've been in as far back as three-man deep," he boasts as he loads the DVD player. "I swam in the hole, the guy held my ankles. He swam in the hole, and the third guy held his ankles. When you get the fish, the first guy kicks, and the second guy kicks, and the third guy pulls you out.
"Now, why is this illegal?"
Why is noodling illegal? Ramsey has been asking that question since at least 1991, when a game warden caught him hand-fishing in the middle fork of the Salt River and slapped him with a $500 fine.
"I can noodle in six states that touch Missouri but I can't noodle in Missouri," says Ramsey, who retired two years ago from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "In Missouri, if I catch a trophy catfish on a line I'm considered a hero, but if I catch one by hand I'm breaking the law. That's not right."
Fed up with what he saw as the Missouri Department of Conservation's double standard, in 1999 Ramsey founded Noodlers Anonymous, an advocacy group that aims to persuade the department to legalize hand-fishing.
Ramsey printed up fliers and T-shirts, Noodlers Anonymous baseball caps, bomber jackets and pins, even DVDs. One of the state's most vocal advocates for what has been considered, since 1919, a form of poaching, Ramsey says his group's ranks have swelled to nearly 500 members.
"A lot of them don't want their names out," he explains. "They call me and tell me they want to be a member, send me a T-shirt but don't write my name down in your membership file."
Through tireless lobbying efforts in Jefferson City and round after round of mailings to state legislators and conservation department officials, Noodlers Anonymous prevailed in 2005, when the MDC legitimized the sport by approving a five-year experimental hand-fishing season in Missouri.
The six-week season, from June 1 until July 15, would allow noodlers to pull catfish from three Missouri rivers: the Fabius, the Mississippi and the St. Francis. Unlike pole-and-line anglers who last year saw their catch limit increase from fifteen to twenty catfish per day during the year-round catfish season noodlers were awarded an experimental hand-fishing season that allowed them to harvest five fish per day for the duration of their 45-day season.
The experimental season was approved in conjunction with the MDC's Catfish Harvest Evaluation Project, a five-year study of hand-fishing, catfish harvest rates and the overall health of the state's catfish population. By tagging catfish in eight Missouri rivers, the MDC hoped to better understand the species' movement and habitat preferences, as well as angler impact on the catfish population.
"The department has spent quite a bit of time on largemouth bass and crappie management. I guess you could say we've been working down our priority list," says Steve Eder, fisheries division chief for the MDC. "We've not studied catfish very intensively, so this is sort of benchmark information."
Two years in, MDC officials now say they are troubled by their preliminary findings.
"Thirteen percent of the tagged fish were caught in the first eighteen months," Eder reports. "That harvest is considered relatively high on a statewide basis, and this 13 percent number is only a minimum estimate. It has not been corrected or adjusted for tag loss, and there are a certain number of anglers who will harvest a fish but not report it. So that 13 percent figure is a minimum. It's what we know."
In light of the preliminary data, the MDC's board of commissioners voted unanimously late last month to scrap the hand-fishing season three years ahead of schedule.
"We'll probably be pursuing a lot more restrictive approach with regulations on our catfish population," Eder explains. "So it would be counterproductive to add another harvest method."
That line of reasoning sticks in Howard Ramsey's craw.
"All we are asking for is five fish per person, per season. That's not twenty fish a day, that's not five fish a day [as was allowed under the experimental season] that's five fish per season," Ramsey emphasizes. "In a forty-five-day season we want to catch five fish, and they're denying us this.
"I would like to use the word 'discrimination.'"
During mating season a male catfish searches out a quiet spot of river an old tire, perhaps, or a rotting log. It requires a location safe from predators, where the current is weak and the female may safely lay her eggs. Sometimes the male uses his broad, shovel-like head to dig a nesting hole in a riverbank.
Depending on her size, a female catfish might produce up to 100,000 eggs. Once the eggs are laid, her mate enters the nest and fertilizes them. For the next week or so, the male stands guard, his gently whisking fins bathing the eggs in oxygenated water.
It is during this weeklong window which varies according to species but typically occurs between early June and late August that noodlers strike.
Noodling, also known as grabbling, hogging, tickling, grabbing or stumping, begins with the fisherman feeling blindly along a riverbank for a catfish nest.
"With a lot of experience, you can tell," says Gary Webb, a gray-bearded, broad-chested man who boasts that he can trace his "hand-fishing heritage" back to 1844.
"You have to make sure that it's not a beaver hole or a muskrat hole. There are little-bitty indicators of whether it's a fish hole or a beaver hole," explains Webb, whose hands bear the telltale scars of a life spent in hand-to-mouth combat with catfish. "A beaver hole will smell (in other words, their waste). If you really get down where you can feel the bottom, a fish hole is just as slick as can be; a beaver hole will have claw marks on the bottom, but that's not very noticeable because they'll go in after that with their belly a-rubbin'."
When a noodler hears "the whomp," he knows he has found a fish "at home." If a fish has dug its nest into the riverbank, noodlers say, they can feel "the rumble" vibrations in the bank caused by the whomp while standing on the shore. It's then that the noodler dives in, some feet-first, others, like Webb and Ramsey, leading with the head.
"There are different techniques, different strategies. It's heritage and how you been taught," says Webb, whose preferred technique, like Ramsey's, involves grabbing the fish by its lower jaw. "Old-timers, they used to go clear for their guts and squeeze the guts. That was supposed to paralyze the fish. But that's the reason them old boys was tore up around their biceps and stuff. I wasn't taught that way, and I've never taught my bunch that way."
There are other strategic nuances. Ramsey noodles in jeans. Webb suits up in nothing but a pair of heart-patterned boxer shorts. "You don't want to wear hardly any clothes, just a pair of light briefs," says Webb. "A beaver will bite off a root underwater, and it'll be sharp. That'll hang on your clothing."
There is one thing all noodlers have in common: the thrill of battle, and the pride that comes with a good case of river rash.
"I've lost a lot of hide over the years, but I've still got all my digits," says Webb. "You just wait on that bite. That's your opportunity to catch 'em. It's just in your blood: It's the challenge, it's the chase. This is big-game hunting."
Or, as Ramsey puts it: "If you ain't bleeding, you ain't hand-fishing."
For all the pastime's man-versus-fish bravado, the perception persists among pole-and-line anglers that noodling is not only déclassé, but also unsporting.
To begin with, critics say that by blocking the exit to the fish's nest a noodler is taking unfair advantage of the catfish when the species is at its most vulnerable.
"The fish is at a big disadvantage," says Virgil Agee, president of the United States Catfish Anglers Tournament Series. "The fish is going to stay on that nest, so the only time he's got a chance [to escape] is between where the fish is caught and the boat."
Other anglers look down on noodling because they say it fosters a negative impression of fishing, which in turn hampers an area's ability to draw tourist dollars.
"It's a little bit antiquated. It's not really a forward-thinking sport," says Tim Scott, editor of Procats Magazine. "It's more backwoods than it is progressive catfishing."
Scott adds that in the past ten years, the number of people interested in trophy-size catfish has seen tremendous growth. In his view, noodlers are bad for business.
"Trophy fishermen don't want to catch a five-pound fish they're traveling three states away and staying for a week and spending all that money to target 50- and 60-pound fish," says Scott. "Noodling is not in that angler's best interest. It's bad for tourism if these guys are reading about noodlers going out and taking any fish they want."
But the most persistent criticism of noodling is the conservation argument.
"They're noodling at the peak of their spawning season, so when they yank that fish off the nest, they're not just taking that fish, they're taking the lives of thousands or millions of others," says Agee, who has caught four catfish that weighed more than 100 pounds apiece. "That's the thing: I wouldn't have a problem with it if they'd have a noodling season when the catfish wasn't spawning."
The MDC's data appear to support the traditional anglers' claim: Researchers found that without an adult on the nest, the eggs quickly succumbed to a fungus, dying within twelve hours.
Noodlers are quick to retort.
"Name me one fisherman who doesn't go for the big fish," says Webb, bristling at the implication that his extreme hobby is unsporting. "Here's what really gets my juices a-flowin': They think that by taking the fish off the nest, those eggs won't hatch. But what happens when a regular angler catches a female catfish? I guarantee that fish will never breed again, so its eggs have a 100 percent mortality rate. At least with noodling, the eggs got a chance."
It is precisely that sort of straightforward reasoning, coupled with a tireless advocacy campaign on the part of Noodlers Anonymous, that has drummed up support for a legal hand-fishing season.
According to an MDC survey, 51 percent of Missouri residents would support a hand-fishing season. (Another, smaller survey conducted by the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service found that 68 percent of those polled were in favor of such a season.)
The sport's widespread support has trickled up, gaining supporters in the Missouri legislature.
"I will do anything to help the noodlers," says state representative Paul Quinn, a Democrat whose Ninth District encompasses Audrain, Boone, Chariton, Howard and Monroe counties in east-central Missouri. "My problem with it is that they were going to allow hand-fishing, and now they've cut that off. I think it's wrong. If we really thought we had a shortage [of catfish], then the first thing they should have done is cut the limit back on what you can catch by pole."
Quinn is not alone: In 2003 the Missouri House of Representatives passed a bill decriminalizing noodling by a margin of 152 to 5. One year later the senate passed a similar measure by a margin of 28 to 5. Most recently, state senator Wes Shoemyer, a Democrat whose Eighteenth District covers much of rural northeastern Missouri, has introduced a bill in support of a hand-fishing season.
But even if Shoemyer's bill passes both houses, it probably won't affect noodling's legality: The Missouri legislature has no authority over the state's wildlife regulations.
"What's unique about our particular arrangement is that MDC has constitutional authority to set all fish and game regulations in the state. Most game and fish agencies don't have that sole power," says Mark Morgan, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri's School of Natural Resources. "Most states' fish-and-wildlife is controlled by the legislature. What Missouri wanted to do was remove the political nature of natural-resource management."
Morgan, who has never noodled himself and doesn't "intend to," became interested in the sport after traveling to Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, to see the Okie Catfish Noodling Tournament, held each year in late June.
"I went as a spectator. I was kind of curious about the activity and I was just checking it out," says Morgan. "When I came back to Missouri, I realized it was illegal in Missouri, which of course poses the question: Why is it legal in one state and not in another?"
The roots of Missouri's prohibition on noodling are obscure. Morgan posits that as progressivism swept the nation in the early twentieth century, activities like noodling "reeked of hillbillyism" and were a source of embarrassment for the state's more genteel politicians. The legislature outlawed the sport in 1919. The conservation department was formed in the mid-1930s and inherited the ban, which has been in place ever since.
Gary Webb, Noodlers Anonymous' "Researcher and Historian," has his own theories. "I can't prove this, but in 1919 there was a Senator McGregor. He was the chair of Fish and Wildlife on the Senate side. He had a lot of power, and he had fish traps on the main river by Sedalia," relates Webb, who farms corn and soybeans near Chillicothe. "Well, along comes his neighbor hand-fishing and gets a fish out of his fish trap. So he confronts his neighbor, and his neighbor says, 'Well, what in the hell are you going to do about it?' So Senator McGregor comes over to the Capitol and makes hand-fishing illegal. Now, if you read the statute, at that time you could still dynamite fish, you could poison fish, you could run your fish traps. It's just hand-fishing you follow me? It was all politics."
Originally practiced by Native Americans, noodling is legal in thirteen states, including Arkansas, Kentucky and (as of this year) Kansas. Tennessee is home to a group called Catfish Grabblers, which produced Girls Gone Grabblin', a video they describe as "35 Southern Women [bringing] you the thrill of catching catfish weighing up to 44 lbs. with their hands and wrestling them to the bank."
(Forced to watch a clip from Girls Gone Grabblin' in which a girl in protective gloves effortlessly pulls a limp catfish from the water, a disgusted Gary Webb scoffs, "Them girls ain't noodling. That fish was already dead!")
Morgan began studying the social aspects of hand-fishing in 2003. Today he is often cited as the state's foremost authority on the subject.
"Nobody had ever done any studies. Nobody really knew how many fish noodlers caught, or how many times they went noodling per year, so there was a world of information that was unknown. And of course, it was very difficult for the MDC to study something that is illegal especially something where they have a supervisory role," Morgan says.
Working off the Noodlers Anonymous membership list, Morgan sent questionnaires to 184 known Missouri noodlers. The professor, who received 103 completed surveys, says the data surprised him.
"It was more along the lines of 'astonished,'" Morgan clarifies. "This activity is infused with meaning. Let's face it: These people live on farms in the countryside with less than 5,000 people in their town. They may have cell phones and Internet and satellite TV, but there's not a lot going on in rural environments, so they're looking for means of entertainment that are meaningful for them."
And that, according to Morgan, means hunting and fishing lots of it. Morgan adds that these sports are more than a means of entertainment. They also serve as a way to form a personal identity, socialize and connect with one's past.
"Part of noodling's meaning is power, domination and success," says Morgan. "Then there's this whole notion of socialization: It's easy to bring people into the sport. Noodlers are very heavy on the family involvement. It's a cultural-identity thing: It's who they are."
Morgan's research revealed a clandestine society of bandit anglers. He estimates that there are roughly 2,000 noodlers statewide, the vast majority of whom are male, live rurally, work at blue-collar jobs and have high school educations. They noodle a mean of roughly ten fish per year, have a pronounced preference for flatheads (as opposed to blues or channel cats) and typically noodle using their bare hands.
"There's a purism scale on noodlers: The purists are bare-handed noodlers. They don't want gloves or spears or anything. That would dilute the sport. They'd say, 'No, that's not noodling,'" says Morgan. "And they hate it when urbanites tell them that it's not right or inappropriate. And they especially hate it when urbanites say, 'Oh, they're just a bunch of drunks out there.'
"Undoubtedly drinking can be a part of this activity and it probably should be a part of this activity but what's happening is that people are saying that it's fine for people from some St. Louis crowd to get stone drunk on the river, but heaven forbid these guys stick their hand in a hole to get their catfish while they're drunk," Morgan concludes.
But although Noodlers Anonymous trots out Morgan's findings each time the group approaches the MDC, department officials so far have been unswayed by the argument that noodling should be decriminalized because it's an essential element of rural identity.
Nor has the department been impressed by the small number of catfish noodlers have harvested during the two years it allowed a hand-fishing season. Although Morgan estimates that there are 2,000 noodlers statewide, MDC officials surveyed a sampling of Missouri anglers and found that 11 percent would participate in a legal hand-fishing season. Extrapolating from that figure, MDC officials calculate that of the state's 664,000 licensed fishermen, as many as 73,000 would participate in a hand-fishing season.
As it stands, however, data from the two years' worth of the experimental season don't bear out the department's projected noodle-mania: The MDC issued a combined total of 159 hand-fishing permits in 2005 and 2006. According to the conservation department's figures, 83 of those permit holders actually used them, catching a total of 47 catfish over the course of the entire two-year period.
Still, MDC officials worry that 646 (or nearly 13 percent) of the 5,099 catfish tagged for the Catfish Harvest Evaluation Project have already been caught. That's a high harvest rate, say MDC biologists. Then again, only one of those tagged fish was caught by a noodler.
Fisheries chief Eder says the conservation department's main concern is the overall health of the state's catfish population. If that population is declining, he says, it makes no sense to legalize another fishing method.
"We already have information that indicates we have harvest rates that are higher than are desirable for the health of the population," says Eder. "So we may actually end up restricting the catfish harvest across the board."
Just south of the Mark Twain Country Club, a Missouri Department of Transportation sign informs travelers on Highway 154 that Noodlers Anonymous is the "Adopt-a-Highway" sponsor for this two-mile stretch. Turn right and the asphalt gives way to gravel. Then the road jogs left. Visitors know they've reached Howard Ramsey's ranch-style home when they see the "Noodlers Anonymous Blvd." sign in the driveway.
A carved wooden statue of a catfish stands nearby. An assortment of catfish Ramsey has pulled over the years lurks in a pond out back. Those are the lucky ones. On display inside his house are stuffed deer heads, game birds and, of course, lacquered catfish he has bagged.
Ramsey can spin a yarn about each of his trophies. He's equally familiar with the MDC's arguments against noodling. Lest anyone be tempted to doubt him, he has a regulation-size pool table stacked high with noodling-related documents to back him up.
"Steve Eder is saying that 13 percent of the tagged fish have already been caught," says Ramsey, whose left hand bears a silver dollar-size scar a surprised flathead gave him a few years back. "Now, everybody that reads that assumes it's the noodlers. But that's not the case. That's by the regular fishermen, not the hand fisherman. These were caught by the trout liners, the bank polers, the juggers and the rod-and-reelers. They're saying that the mortality rate on catfish is too high to allow another method of fishing in Missouri, but they just raised the [traditional] catch limit."
If the MDC wanted to be equitable, Ramsey asks, why not restrict other methods of fishing? The MDC allows those fishermen to catch twenty fish per day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. Why not trim that back to fifteen a day, he asks, and allow the noodlers their measly five fish per season?
"But these are people who've never been in the river," Ramsey scoffs. "They've never had their hand in a fish's mouth."
Ramsey contends that he didn't catch a single catfish in one of the three approved rivers during last year's experimental season. And given that noodlers report catching only 47 fish over the 2005 and 2006 seasons, a conventional fisherman could conceivably catch more catfish in three days than Missouri's entire noodling population did over the course of two years.
"Now really, what kind of impact is [noodling] going to have?" asks Ramsey. "But we tried to work with the MDC for years everything we could do to get a hand-fishing season in Missouri, and it didn't work. One Fisheries fellow told me I might as well try to get marijuana legalized in Missouri."
Fisheries chief Eder counters that traditional anglers rarely approach their limit.
"In reality, people catch far fewer than that every day," says Eder. "Looking at statewide figures, it's probably no more than one to two fish per trip. So in fact we can't say that people are taking twenty fish per day."
Still, Ramsey and Gary Webb refuse to give up. Their current strategy involves attempting to arrange a personal meeting with Governor Matt Blunt.
They don't need to be reminded, however, that the governor himself is powerless to change the MDC's policy.
Shifting authority over fish and game regulations away from the Department of Conservation would entail a constitutional amendment.
"We could have the governor go out there and sign a proclamation and look the director straight in the eye, and it wouldn't make no difference," says Webb. "They don't have to answer to anybody."
For the time being, Noodlers Anonymous continues its weekly treks to the offices of state legislators and to meetings of the MDC's board of commissioners.
Come summer, however, their political activities are almost sure to taper off.
Because they'll be out noodling.
"I guarantee it's going to go on in Missouri," says Webb. "It don't matter what this law does. Them old boys like me, they been hand-fishing for 60 years well, they been breaking the law all that time. If it's in your blood, by God you're going to go hand-fishing."
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