The Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. — A five-year experiment to determine whether to legalize noodling in Missouri could end three years early.
Citing renewed threats to breeding-age fish, state conservation officials are no longer issuing permits to fish for catfish by hand, a practice known as noodling. The suspension could be made permanent as soon as next month.
“They’re catching too many, so we can’t catch any,” said Howard Ramsey, of Paris, Mo., president of Noodlers Anonymous, in a reference to Missourians who prefer to keep their hands outside the water when fishing.
Noodlers use their bare hands to poke around underwater caves and crevices for fish with sharp teeth that can weigh up to 100 pounds. As often as not, they come up with a handful of snakes, beavers or snapping turtles by mistake.
The way Ramsey sees it, “If you don’t come up bloody, you ain’t hand fishing.”
State law allows those who fish using lines, jugs or rods and reels to catch and keep up to 20 catfish daily. Noodlers are asking the state to allow hand-fishers to keep only five fish each season — compared with the experimental limit of five each day.
An estimated 2,000 Missourians fish by hand, according to Ramsey, compared with nearly half a million who fish using traditional methods.
Steve Eder, fisheries division chief for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said the experiment should end early because scientists have found higher-than-expected mortality rates among catfish in state waters. He also suggested that further limits could be imposed on all types of catfish harvests.
“We’re probably going to be more conservative in our harvest restrictions on catfish,” he said.
The Missouri Conservation Commission approved an experimental hand-fishing season for six weeks during summer 2005, limiting such fishing to specific parts of the Fabius, St. Francis and Mississippi rivers.
Ramsey said 159 permits have been issued over the past two years, with a total of 27 catfish caught by hand. State officials alerted permit-holders to the proposed changes in a March 16 letter.
Noodling is legal in at least a dozen states, including neighboring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois. Elsewhere, the practice is a misdemeanor crime.
Legislation to lengthen Missouri’s hand-fishing season and expand it to other bodies of water has previously passed both the state House and Senate but never made it into law.
State Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said he plans to renew those legislative efforts and take his complaints directly to Gov. Matt Blunt once the Legislature returns next week from its spring recess.
“I’m very disappointed,” he said. “Conservation has never been a willing participant in this experiment. They had their minds made up way before any study was done.”
A Conservation Department committee will consider the proposal to restore a permanent ban at an April 3 meeting in Jefferson City. Final approval rests with the four-member commission, which could consider the measure at its own April meeting, Eder said.