State officials end noodling experiment

Saturday, April 21, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Missouri conservation officials voted Friday to end the experiment with hand fishing after just two years, citing threats to breeding-age fish.

The Conservation Commission voted unanimously at a meeting in Lebanon to immediately end an effort to decide whether to legalize the practice also known as noodling.

Noodlers use their bare hands to reach into logs and crevices and grab for fish that have sharp teeth and can weigh up to 100 pounds. It's not a sport for everyone; noodlers also wind up pulling out snakes, beavers or snapping turtles by accident.

The Missouri Conservation Commission originally planned a five-year experimental hand-fishing season for six weeks during the summer in stretches of the Fabius, St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. Otherwise, hand fishing remained a misdemeanor offense. The effort was to provide data on the effect of hand fishing on Missouri's catfish population.

But scientists recommended an end to the project after finding higher-than-expected mortality rates among catfish in state waters, although they do not have mortality rates from before the hand-fishing experiment began. Among other things, scientists found that when adult fish were taken away, leaving their nests of eggs unattended, their eggs died within hours.

"The inescapable conclusion was that current regulations prevent catfish from reaching their growth potential," Conservation Department assistant director John Smith said in a written statement announcing the decision. "It is clear that several changes are needed if anglers desire larger catfish. Discontinuing hand fishing is the first and most obvious one."

Howard Ramsey, of Paris, Mo., president of Noodlers Anonymous, said hand fishers offered various ideas to allow the sport in Missouri, such as limiting them to five fish a season and tagging them, much like deer, so officials can make sure fishermen are not exceeding the limit.

"We're kind of counting on the legislators. It's about the only recourse we've got," he said. "Why are they try to fix something that ain't broke? Catfish have got along in Missouri for hundreds of years without the (Conservation Department's) help."

Legislation to lengthen Missouri's hand-fishing season and expand it to other bodies of water previously has passed both the state House and Senate but never became law.

Some lawmakers have questioned whether they even 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.

Conservation officials are considering whether there should be more limits on all methods of catching catfish.

State law allows those who fish using lines, jugs, or rods and reels to catch and keep up to 20 catfish daily.

An estimated 2,000 Missourians fish by hand, compared with 664,000 licensed anglers in the state.

In all, 159 hand-fishing permits were issued over the past two years, with a total of 27 catfish caught by hand, according to Noodlers Anonymous.

The Conservation Department warned that hand fishing could be much bigger, saying a sample indicated 11 percent of Missouri anglers, or about 73,000, could participate if noodling were allowed.

Noodling is legal in at least a dozen states, including neighboring Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois.

The Conservation Department said further changes in managing catfish won't occur until at least next year. Regional meetings will be held to share the research with the public and get input.

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