Senate passes extension in state's hand-fishing season

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Missouri's noodlers seek expanded opportunities to catch fish.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The hand-fishing season that was limited to certain days and waterways last summer would be expanded under a bill the Senate passed Thursday.

Sponsoring Sen. John Cauthorn said enthusiasts were not satisfied with the limited hand-fishing season. Noodlers, as they're called, use their bare hands to wrestle underwater with huge fish baring sharp teeth -- and sometimes grab snakes or snapping turtles by mistake.

"They just want to use their mind and their soul against a monster fish," said Cauthorn, R-Mexico.

The Missouri Conservation Commission approved an experimental hand-fishing season during summer 2005. The season ran June 1 to July 15, but noodling was legal only along specified stretches of the Fabius, St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. Aside from that window, hand fishing is a misdemeanor.

Noodlers complained that the Mississippi and the St. Francis rivers are too dangerous or otherwise undesirable for hand fishing, which could make the Fabius overcrowded. About 100 permits were issued for hand fishing last summer.

Howard Ramsey of Paris, president of Noodlers Anonymous, said Friday that he hoped the Senate support could make expanded hand fishing a reality.

The legislation would allow hand fishing for catfish and carp throughout June and July on any waters in Missouri where regular hook-and-line fishing is permitted. Hand fishers would be limited to five catfish apiece per season and would have to report their catch to the commission. Ramsey noted that on many Missouri waterways, line fishers can catch 20 catfish a day.

Conservation officials oppose the bill, hoping instead to allow an experimental season for a few years. State officials question whether hand fishing depletes breeding-age catfish.

"We are trying to abide by the direction our commission provided us -- to evaluate the impacts of hand fishing on selected waters before considering whether anything of that sort should be allowed on a larger scale," said Steve Eder, the Conservation Department's fisheries division chief.

Noodlers seek same rights

Ramsey said it's not fair to single out hand fishers.

"We ought to be able to fish for catfish everywhere everybody else fishes for catfish," he said. "You tell me anybody that catfishes that doesn't target large fish."

Eder said the commission wanted a recommendation within five years but last year's data is not enough to say whether the sport had a harmful effect.

Some senators also questioned whether lawmakers can dictate fishing seasons. The Conservation Commission is established in the state constitution as a separate entity to oversee hunting and fishing rules, with a dedicated sales tax not controlled by the legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said he is not sure lawmakers should cross that line but conservation officials need to expand hand-fishing opportunities.

"Constitutionally, conservation is set off as another department," he said. "There's a question of whether the legislature A, can; and B, should jump into that."

Shields was on the opposing side in the Senate's 23-6 vote to pass the bill Thursday. The bill now goes to the House for consideration.

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