May 24, 2014

Hand fishing: If it’s good enough for the South, it’s good enough for Texas

Texas Parks and Wildlife officials are surveying “noodlers,” three years after the Legislature OK’d the practice.

Fair or unfair, there is a social stigma attached to what some people call “hand fishing.”

It is considered Southern, for one thing. It is often referred to as a redneck style of fishing in which the participants wear bib overalls, are often sunburned around the neck and shoulder area, display several tattoos and oftentimes are missing one or more of their front teeth.

That is a gross generalization, of course — some of them have no tattoos at all.

It is an ill-defined sport where individuals, and sometimes teams of individuals, search out muddy river banks or stumpy lake backwaters looking for underwater holes where large catfish like to hide. The idea is go take a big gulp of air, go underwater and in nearly zero visibility, and stick fists in these dark holes hoping against hope that an angry catfish lunges forward and bites down.

The angler then grabs the fish by the gills, or tonsils, or toenails — whatever a catfish has — and hangs on for dear life. It is considered a victory when the fisherman can lift the whiskered behemoth out of the water and show off all the bloody cuts the fish has made on his or her forearm. Yes, women do this too.

Some people call it noodling, for some unknown reason, and many people find it entertaining. The National Geographic Channel aired the Okie Noodling Tournament, and another series called Mudcats. Animal Planet has a show called Hillbilly Handfishin’, as well as Catfish Kings: The Ultimate Noodling Competition. The teams involved in that competition are from Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. All of which kind of substantiates the notion that hand fishing is a Southern sport.

And, it should be pointed out, this stigma, like most all stigmas, is generally unfair. At least it’s not a sport for the faint of heart.

Hand fishing, or noodling, was illegal in Texas until about three years ago, when the Legislature took up the question of whether or not Texas fishermen were being culturally denied their rights to grab a catfish by the throat. It was reasoned by the esteemed governmental body that if noodling was good enough for the rest of the South, it was good enough for Texas, and a bill was passed.

Now, the Texas Parks and Wildlife department is asking noodlers to respond to an online survey so the department can better understand their wants and needs. Some anglers thought when word of the survey first surfaced just a few days ago that there might be some effort afoot to eliminate this style of fishing once again. Detractors say hand fishing is bad for the catfish industry because the people who do it are only looking for the big, mature, trophy cats, which are the ones responsible for most of the breeding, and therefore the future of the species.

That fear might be unfounded.

“Hand fishing is actually a law in Texas,” said Kris Bodine, a fisheries research biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “It’s not a regulation developed by our agency. It was put forth by the Legislature and we’re not trying to stop it or continue it; we just want to know more about it.”

The law is short and simple: “Fishing is by the use of hands only; the use of any other fishing device while hand fishing (including but not limited to gaff, pole hook, trap, spear or stick) is unlawful.

“No person may intentionally place a trap (including such devices as boxes, barrels or pipes) in public fresh water for the purpose of taking catfish by hand fishing.”

The law states the method “may be used to take channel, blue and flathead catfish in fresh water only.”

The Parks and Wildlife survey is short and relatively simple. It asks anglers how many days have they fished this method in the last 12 months; where do they fish most often; what is most important to them — size, number of fish caught; do they like tournaments; and how do they feel about catch and release.

It’s not much more than that. Bodine said the department has received about 175 responses so far, which is considered good, but it also shows that maybe there aren’t that many people using their hands and arms as bait for the big cats.

“Surprisingly, it doesn’t appear to be as many folks as one might think,” he said of the noodlers. “I don’t know the number, but it is relatively low compared to other techniques, according to studies we’ve done to date.”

Bodine said there is no doubt that with any species, the older, larger, more mature fish are doing most of the reproducing, but so far there is no evidence that noodling is hurting the population any more than what others are catching on trotlines and bottle lines.

“The perception is they are going to catch all the big ones, but at this point there is no evidence of that, no reason to be worried,” he said.

Bodine said he’s fully aware of the stigma that follows this newest catfishing method, but points out that it isn’t a concern to his department.

“We have a brand new fishery that has just developed,” he said, “and our goal is to provide quality fishing. That’s part of our duty. If bass fishing just became legal today, we would be doing the same kind of study. That is our job.”

Texas Parks and Wildlife will be conducting the survey through June 30. It is available online at the TPWD website. It is voluntary, and the responses will remain confidential.

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