JEFFERSON CITY — Noodling, grabbling, hogging — whatever you call it, the sport of hand-fishing is illegal in Missouri.
In much of the state, noodling is a family tradition, regardless of its legal status. Generation after generation of hand-fishers have waded into the muddiest water they can find and blindly cast their arms into holes in the hope of snagging a catfish.
The fact that it's been illegal since 1919 seems to do little to faze the sport's dedicated fans.
Case in point: Gary Webb.
Webb has been noodling his entire life. Now, after decades of escaping arrest in Missouri's backwoods, he and the other members of Noodlers Anonymous, a hand-fishing activist group, have taken their struggle over legalizing the sport straight to the steps of the Capitol building.
Webb's experience with hand-fishing began at the age of 7 when he first learned about the sport.
After four years of catching carp in the rivers and creeks near his home, Webb was ready. By the time he was 12 years old, he had caught his first catfish.
"It was right close to our favorite swimming hole, so I knew where this hollow log was," Webb said. "I went over, and I pulled this fish out and got my legs around it, and I got both hands in its mouth and got a scissor hold on it."
Webb wrestled with the fish until he had control of it, and at that point his 5-year-old brother pulled him from the water. Webb gripped the fish tight in his hands.
"He got ahold of the hair on my head and pulled me over to where I could get my back on the bank," Webb said. "We got that fish tied up, and I walked mine home and showed my dad and mom. I walked a half mile just to show them my prize."
The role of hand-fishing in Webb's life has changed over the years, evolving from a passive hobby to a passionate cause — one that eventually led him to become the historian for Noodlers Anonymous.
The group's attempts to legalize hand-fishing in the state began in 1999, from which point their efforts have been tireless and briefly successful.
During spring 2004, after five years of seemingly futile meetings with members of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the noodlers were granted a trial period of legalized hand-fishing.
Dubbed an "experimental hand-fishing season," it was to last for five years, beginning in summer 2005, during which the state's hand-fishing enthusiasts would be allowed to fish during June and July on the Fabius, Mississippi and St. Francis rivers.
After its second season, the Department of Conservation pulled the plug on the experiment and deemed it unsafe to the population levels of what they considered some of Missouri's most sought-after fish.
This session, the members of Noodlers Anonymous worked with Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, to draft a bill that calls for the creation of a legal noodling season. During the months of June and July, noodlers would be allowed to catch a season-total of five fish, which is 15 fewer than the daily number allowed for standard rod-and-reel anglers.
But the bill faces powerful opposition.
The sport's somewhat-goofy name belies the severity of the issue. Both sides have become involved in a lengthy and heated debate over the legitimacy of hand-fishing as a sport.
In fact, upon contacting the Missouri Department of Conservation, requests for interviews were rebuffed a number of times. Very few department members agreed to offer any comment at all for fear of commenting on what they said is a sensitive subject.
The conservation department's Fisheries Division Chief Chris Vitello said the department's position against noodling comes from concerns for the survival of the catfish population. He said the department has conducted studies on the consequences of removing catfish from their nests during the months of June and July, their spawning period.
"At that time, when it's the next generation of catfish for that particular fish, and perhaps for that particular stretch of stream or that part of the reservoir ... By removing that fish, those eggs have a very, very, very slim chance, virtually no chance, of developing and producing young-of-the-year fish," Vitello said.
He said the department has never conducted a study that shows a direct correlation between hand-fishing and a decrease in catfish population, though he said other studies have led them to believe there would be a decrease.
Vitello cited a controlled experiment conducted by the department, in which they removed catfish from their nests to replicate and to understand the consequences that noodling would have on the catfish population. The study found that after they removed the fish from the environment, the water would become stagnant, which stopped the flow of oxygenated water over a nest and allowed for a fungus to grow on it, and subsequently killed the eggs.
Munzlinger, however, has a different opinion for why the conservation department is opposed to the legalization of noodling.
"If you're hand-fishing you don't have to buy lure, you don't have to buy a rod-and-reel, you don't have to buy hooks, you don't have to buy bait. Therefore, you don't give any real tax money to support the sportsmen," Munzlinger said.
Nationally, conservation departments are split on whether to legalize the sport of hand-fishing.
It is currently legal in six of Missouri's bordering states, including Oklahoma, where one of the largest hand-fishing tournaments in the nation is held.
But just a little farther south in Texas, it isn't. However, Chief of Fisheries Management and Research for Texas Parks and Wildlife Dave Terre said they are open to exploring the topic.
On Tuesday, the bill was still listed on the Senate's formal calendar, but with barely one week left in the legislative session, time is quickly running out for the bill to pass.
According to previous statements made by Gov. Jay Nixon, if the bill ever makes it to his desk, it will likely be passed. Nixon took to the radio waves in 2009 to express his opinion on its potential legalization.
After referring to it as a "risk-reward sport," Nixon compared noodling to the legal practice of harvesting paddlefish eggs for caviar.
"If it's legal to take a hook and bring it across the bottom down below a dam to hook a paddlefish so you can get their eggs, it certainly ought to be legal for somebody to lean over and put their hand in and pull out a catfish," Nixon said.
But for die-hards such as Webb, the sport's legal status doesn't really make a difference.
For Noodlers Anonymous, he said, it's about family, it's about tradition, it's about the thrill of the catch — and they'll never stop noodling.