Noodlers Anonymous: Professor researches the passion of handfishing
COLUMBIA, Mo. - Noodlers Anonymous isn't a 12-step group for pasta fanatics. But its secretive members are fanatical - about fish.
Noodlers fish by reaching barehanded into murky water, logs and submerged holes in river banks, hoping what they grab is a big old catfish, not a snake or a snapping turtle.
"I haven't lost any fingers, but I've lost a lot of hide. You get bit everywhere," declares Howard Ramsey of Paris, Mo., president of Noodlers Anonymous and a handfisherman for 46 of his 58 years. His father initiated him, as did his daddy before him. Ramsey taught his son, Mark, to noodle, and proudly passes along a snapshot of them holding up freshly noodled catfish the size of outboard motors.
"It's a real fight with these fish," Ramsey says, "but it's sporting because you are under water and in his territory. I've had quite a few close calls."
The anonymous part of his group's name is because Missouri has for decades decreed handfishing a misdemeanor punishable by court-imposed fines. Ramsey was socked with a $600 fine about 20 years ago, and says he now noodles outside Missouri. Forms of handfishing, variously called hogging and grappling, are legal in 11 states, including Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois.
Now a University of Missouri-Columbia professor has surveyed noodlers about their clandestine hand-to-fin competition against catfish weighing upward of 50 pounds and packing flat heads as big as hubcaps. Most are men, average age about 40, who started noodling in early adolescence and are usually joined by friends.
"This is their form of recreation, and according to noodlers, it's wholesome family fun, social bonding and being with nature. They also are really brave or really crazy, because there are dangers," said Mark Morgan, the professor exploring sociological aspects of noodling.
This year, the Missouri House and Senate overwhelmingly approved bills backed by Noodlers Anonymous to legalize handfishing during June and July, but the legislation died in procedural traffic jams.
The Missouri Department of Conservation, which regulates fishing and hunting, is skeptical about legalizing handfishing but has its biologists studying the practice.
Deputy Director John Smith said the most favored catch of noodlers, the flathead catfish, doesn't reach sexual maturity for four or five years, and yanking them from spawning areas could deplete the fish population and disturb nests. And many Missouri waterways have been smoothed into manmade channels, reducing flathead habitat, he said.
"We do think this makes Missouri's situation somewhat unique, but we are listening and have an ongoing dialogue with the handfishermen," Smith said Friday.
He said the agency also noted the broad legislative backing for noodling, "because the assumption is the lawmakers are representing what their constituents want."
The department is conducting its own survey of attitudes about noodling, with questionnaires being mailed to about 12,000 holders of Missouri fishing licenses.
Morgan said his survey of admitted handfishers, vetted by a university academic committee, offered new nuggets of information. Ramsey helped by forwarding the questionnaire to 184 noodlers, and about half replied directly to Morgan.
Respondents reported noodling an average of a dozen times each summer, most often with bare hands, the law notwithstanding. Acknowledging that fishing and exaggeration are inseparable traditions of the great outdoors, Morgan said with a chuckle that about 40 percent of fish targeted by noodlers reportedly got away.
"You'd consider it a niche sport," the professor said.
For noodling activist Ramsey, those niches have included deep cavities in river banks, 15 feet under water.
"There's nothing like being deep in one of those holes, with someone you trust holding your ankles, ready to pull you out when you kick 'cause you've got the big one," Ramsey said.
"You just hope it IS the big one."