JEFFERSON CITY — It’s illegal, but it happens: People jump into rivers and lakes, blindly stick their hands into logs or dark holes and pull out big fish by their mouths.
The practice is called “noodling,” and the Missouri Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to a bill that would legalize it in a limited form by allowing hand fishing for catfish and carp during June and July.
Senators advanced the measure on a voice vote after a half-joking debate in which urban lawmakers expressed disbelief at the practice and noted the state Conservation Department opposes the bill. The legislation needs another Senate vote to move to the House.
In the past five years, 126 people have been convicted for illegal hand fishing, receiving an average fine of $120, according to the Conservation Department, which sets hunting and fishing seasons and enforces wildlife regulations.
But sponsoring Sen. John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, said some rural residents want to legally enjoy the sport, which he claims dates to early American Indian tribes.
Sen. Dan Clemens, R-Marshfield, acknowledged hand fishing as a child — a skill he learned from an elderly neighbor much to the shock of his family.
“For me to oppose your bill, given what I used to do, would be absolutely hypocritical,” Clemens told Cauthorn during Senate debate. “I have a bunch of neighbors who also do this with catfish. One almost drowned when he got hung up in a catfish’s mouth in a log in the Gasconade River.”
Catfish are a common target of hand fishers, because the female fish often camp out under logs or in riverbed holes while protecting their nest of eggs, said Larry Yamnitz, who trains game wardens for the Conservation Department.
The risk of hand fishing is the uncertainty of what lurks in the holes. It could be a fish, but it could also be an otter, beaver, muskrat or snapping turtle, Yamnitz said. And big catfish also can severely injure a person’s fingers, hand or arm.
Several city-dwelling senators seemed taken aback by the whole picture.
“I’m not sure why anybody would do this without being pretty relaxed,” said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis, implying that the good judgment of a person fishing by hand may be clouded by alcoholic intoxication.
The Conservation Department raised seven concerns about the bill.
Chief among them was the fear that, due to channelization or damaged habitat, it would be easy for hand fishers to identify places were big catfish could hide. They could deplete the population of 15- to 20-pound flathead catfish and decrease the trophy fish available for those using traditional hooks and lines, said Mike Kruse, the fisheries program supervisor for the Conservation Department.
Cauthorn said those concerns were unwarranted, claiming water habitat was in fine shape and there were plenty of catfish to meet the demand of the limited number of people who fish by hand.
Yamnitz said some hand fishers set traps for catfish by submerging boxes in the water. Several years ago, conservation agents hauled a tractor-trailer load of such traps out of Pomme de Terre Lake, he said.
Other popular hand fishing spots include the Lake of the Ozarks, Stockton Lake and the Gasconade, Grand, Osage and Salt rivers, he said.