Gary Webb learned to swim when he was 3 years old. He went on his first fishing trip at age 5. And at 12, he caught his first large catfish with his bare hands.
“I wrapped my legs around it, dove down, and my 5-year-old brother had to grab my hair and pull me to shore,” Webb, now 63, said. He held on to the 12½-pound fish the whole time.
An avid hand-fisher, Webb grew up in Ludlow, where he still lives. He began hand-fishing while growing up in the 1950s with family acquaintances and his school bus driver. It was his school bus driver, a man born in the late 1800s, who taught Webb the “tricks of the trade” as they made the rounds to northern Missouri streams where hand-fishing is most popular.
“There are a lot of ways of catching fish,” Webb said. “You just got to get it in your blood.”
Hand-fishing, also known as hogging, tickling, grabbing, grappling, stumping and — most commonly, noodling — has been illegal in Missouri for more than 85 years. A few biological studies have been conducted on noodling, but some MU researchers are turning their attention now to the culture that surrounds the hobby. It’s a sport steeped in a tradition of teamwork among family and friends who crave the chance to experience nature more closely than they can using the common rod and reel. What better way to do that than to wrestle underwater with a trophy-size channel cat, blue cat or flathead?
“There’s a certain day (of the year) we have several families of all ages — 3 years and up — go (hand-fishing) together,” Webb said. “That is, unless the river’s too high.”
Everyone has a job on a noodling trip. A blocker holds a catfish in its nest, usually a mud hole or a log. A diver allows the fish to bite his or her arm then grabs the fish, while another person holds the diver’s feet and pulls his or her head above water. Another stands ready to tie a rope around the gills of the catfish. Noodling purists use only their bare hands to wrestle the catfish, which almost always weigh more than 20 pounds and can be as heavy as 80 pounds.
To call noodling “a primitive method” of fishing seems an understatement, but that’s how it is described in a 2006 hand-fishing study conducted by Mark Morgan, an assistant professor of parks, recreation and tourism at MU who studies the cultural and recreational facets of hand-fishing. His research is the first to investigate the sociological components of the sport in Missouri, he said.
“(Noodling) is not just about catching fish,” Morgan said. “It’s about persistence — dogged persistence — and pushing the agenda... It’s a macho sport. There’s something to be said about capturing a fish, something so large, with your bare hands.”
Hand-fishers also have to be a bit sneaky. The Missouri legislature outlawed hand-fishing in 1919, 25 years before Webb was born. It remained illegal until 2005, when the Missouri Department of Conservation established a 45-day experimental hand-fishing season on the Fabius, Mississippi and St. Francis rivers. Hand-fishers could buy special permits to pursue catfish without traditional tackle June 1 through July 15.
The experiment, originally scheduled to last five years, was intended to gauge the level of interest in hand-fishing and to determine its impact on catfish populations, said Steve Eder, fisheries division chief for the department. The conservation agency held the season again in 2006 but decided in April to end the experiment after data in a fisheries study suggested legal hand-fishing might reduce catfish numbers.
Webb and several other hand-fishers, including Howard Ramsey of Paris, Mo., formed Noodlers Anonymous in 1999 to lobby for legalized noodling. Ramsey, the group’s president, said it wants the state to create a well-regulated 60-day season in June and July and to limit noodlers to five fish apiece. That’s not much, Ramsey and Webb said, compared to the 20 catfish that regular anglers are allowed to catch every day.
Whether the conservation department goes along is probably moot.
“We have a tremendous outlaw heritage in Missouri,” Morgan said. “There’s something special about catching large fish and evading the game warden, too.”
Hand-fishers are commonly stereotyped as “drunkards” and “hillbillies,” Morgan said. In a progressive era with high-minded ideas, Morgan said, some people consider noodling “about as low-minded as you can get.”
It is predominantly a blue-collar sport, Morgan said, but noodlers get the same enjoyment from hand-fishing as anglers do while fishing for trout, which is sometimes viewed as a higher-class activity, according to his research.
Mary Grigsby, an associate professor of rural sociology at MU, also studies noodling as a cultural practice, but her research centers on the reasons noodlers are so persistent, despite the physical challenge, potential danger and illegality of the sport. She said noodling is a folk tradition in which participants develop close ties with their noodling partners.
“(Noodling) is elemental — that submersion, that close connection, that tie with life,” she said. “They love it because they’re able to get life from it.”
Grigsby said she’s seen husbands and wives, families and groups of friends noodling together. These relationships and living close to nature make noodling a unique sport, she said.
People in Morgan’s study began noodling at an average age of 14, Morgan said, and many experienced hand-fishers invite youngsters to participate and learn. Webb said he has been in the river with more than 300 first-timers, and only a few decided to return for a second round.
“It’s just not for everybody,” he said. “There are dangers. Safety is first.”
“You can’t just go noodling and say you’re proficient in it,” Morgan said. “Noodlers say it takes a lot of time and practice.” Morgan said he has declined numerous offers to catch catfish with his bare hands.
Grigsby said she has no opinion on whether noodling should be legal in Missouri, but she is interested in the social aspects of the sport, much like Morgan. She will continue her research this summer, to develop articles and possibly a book. She plans to travel to Oklahoma in June for the eighth annual Okie Noodling Tournament and interview hand-fishers there.
Webb and Ramsey will be competing in Oklahoma. Like other Missouri noodlers, they’re accustomed to traveling there and to Kansas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Illinois to fish by hand. All those states have regulated, legal seasons.
In Missouri, research by Morgan and Grigsby shows that most Missourians with an interest in hand-fishing live in rural areas across the state. Most are north of the Missouri River, where streams are murkier.
“Those rivers are conducive to catfish,” Morgan said. “Catfish thrive in what you would consider yucky rivers: slow, brown, muddy.”
Webb said it doesn’t matter much where he fishes, but he does have a favorite spot.
“It’s the water right beside my favorite mushroom patch,” he said with a laugh.