by Cody Anthony
Noodling has been gaining much media interest in recent years as a curious tradition of rural Southern United States. The sport, which consists of men and women plunging barehanded into submerged river holes to pull out catfish, has been featured on popular TV programs such as Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, History Channel’s Mudcats, and in its own Animal Planet series named Hillbilly Handfishin’. Noodling is fascinating for its high stakes as an extreme sport; not only must the participant battle strong currents and hidden dangers below the water, but in states like Missouri one must also do this as an outlaw because noodling is banned for its unknown effects on catfish populations.
So who are the noodlers exactly?
Mary Grigsby, an intrigued University of Missouri researcher of rural sociology, explores this question in her book Noodlers in Missouri: Fishing for Identity in a Rural Subculture. Grisby interviewed 20 men and 10 women noodlers in order to hear what the activity means to them.
In an interview with The Maneater, Grigsby said she started with the questions, “Why had people persisted in doing this from 1919 to 2005 when it was illegal? Why do they keep going in a river, going under water, using their hand as a lure to get chomped and bleed? What would make someone really want to do this, even though it is illegal? I think my book answered that.”
The penalty for noodling in Missouri is no small sum either. A noodler who was active in Noodlers Anonymous told Grigsby about the legal issues noodlers must face. “If you’ve never been caught before you can’t understand the feeling that I have when I go because I was caught in ’91 by the conservation agent. Cost me $500 and the maximum is 1,030 days in jail. If I get caught again that’s where I’m going, probably to jail. Whoever gets caught with me is going to face the same penalties and I don’t want to be responsible for that” (90).
With the threat of legal action constant, noodlers are motivated by more than just the fish they catch. Grigsby found in her research that the noodling subculture is quite different than the images portrayed by the generalized culture in popular media. “For people involved in noodling, the activity transcends the realm of sport. The intimacy with members of the group, the immersion into the natural environment, and the ‘primitive’ closeness that noodlers experience with their prey are parts of a web of cultural meanings and values that illuminates what noodling means in the noodling subculture and why it has persisted despite its illegality” (8).
Most noodlers see noodling as an important opportunity to spend time with families and to teach their children important cultural values such as teamwork, trust, respect for the environment, and overcoming difficult adversity in daily life. Grigsby said the noodling tradition is part of a cultural identity that defines noodlers as a unique group of hardworking, rural people and establishes their worthiness in the face of a dominant culture that grants higher worth to middle class suburban and urban values.
For these reasons, Noodlers Anonymous continues to lobby for legalization of noodling in Missouri. Primarily through their efforts, noodling was legalized in 2005 as part of a 5-year experimental study, but was halted in 2007 after the Missouri Department of Conservation stated that the catfish population was under duress. Of the 646 tagged catfish caught that season, only one had been captured by noodling.
“They’re all about the money” Connie, an avid noodler, told Grigsby. “And they can’t make money off a hand-fisherman because there’s nothing that a hand-fisherman needs but a rope. That’s it” (84).
There is no evidence that noodling will become legalized in Missouri again in the near future. But for devout noodlers these obstacles have not dampened their spirits. “It’s like I told the UPS man the other day, it’s the challenge,” Howard Ramsey told The New York Times. “Anybody can throw a trout line in the river and hang a perch on it. But very few people are going get in the river, and wade around and look for a hole in the bank, stick your hand in there, and hope it’s a catfish.”
As long as challenges persist, noodlers don’t see noodling dying out anytime soon.