Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.E-mail: email@example.com
In Vermont, residents are allowed to shoot fish. In Wisconsin, they can spear fish. And in Missouri, they soon will be able to catch fish with their bare hands.
The four-member Missouri Conservation Commission has agreed to legalize handfishing--also known as noodling, hogging, guddling or tickling--starting this summer. The experimental season will run from June 1 through July 15 along specified stretches of the Fabius, St. Francis and Mississippi rivers.
The activity will be tightly regulated--hooks and other devices are not allowed--and closely studied to see if and how it impacts blue, channel and flathead catfish in Missouri's waterways. There is no sunset provision, although the Conservation Commission expects an answer on its effects in five years.
"We don't want to do any harm to our resources," says Steve Eder, the Department of Conservation's fisheries division administrator. "What is important is to go about gaining knowledge in the proper way, and that takes time. We want to give the commission good information so they can make an informed decision."
Noodling involves pulling fish by the jaw or gill plates from the natural holes and openings where females lay their eggs. Noodlers often hold their breath for long stretches of time, increasing the dangers of drowning or getting bit by irritated beavers, snapping turtles or snakes. It is currently legal to handfish in 11 states, including neighboring Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois.
The long-held belief that noodling depletes breeding-age fish was behind the Conservation Department's initial reluctance to legalize the activity. Approached four years ago by the group Noodlers Anonymous, the department realized that without the proper data to back up its concerns, it could not say with certainty whether handfishing would hurt catfish populations. After some consideration, the department decided a limited experimental season wouldn't hurt the breeding population, and the studies would provide a scientific basis to make future decisions.
"We have been honest from the beginning that we don't know as much about this as we probably should," Eder says. "This will be an opportunity to learn more about catfish."