Brady Knowlton has scurried up trees to escape elephants. He has been chased by lions. But in years of hunting, he said, no experience compares to plunging his bare hand into murky water and feeling the powerful jaw of a big catfish clamp down on his arm.
But noodling has its detractors. In what could be seen as fishing’s class warfare, traditional rod-and-reel fishermen say noodlers tarnish the reputation of the up-and-coming sport of catfishing. And they worry that hand fishing could decimate the population of large male catfish.
“I had no idea it was against the law,” said State Representative Gary Elkins, Republican of Houston, who introduced a bill to legalize it. He said he could not imagine sticking his own hand down a fish’s gullet but that he did not see why the state should prohibit those who enjoy it from doing so.
It comes with some risks — including run-ins with snakes or snapping turtles and the potential loss of a digit or two. But Mr. Knowlton said it is a great way to enjoy nature. And using your bare hands to wrestle down a catfish that can weigh as much as 60 pounds, well, just seems more sporting.
Noodling worries opponents of hand fishing because it is practiced during the summer spawning season. Females lay their eggs in underwater burrows, which are guarded by males, whose protectiveness makes it possible for the noodler to stick a hand into a burrow and come out with an aggressive catfish. The noodler’s score means one less big catfish in the population and leaves those eggs vulnerable to other predators.
Noodlers and some biologists dispute the argument that noodling affects fish populations differently than other forms of fishing. It is no different from snagging fish on the end of a hook, they say.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department officials will not speak for or against pending legislation, but officials have expressed some concern that noodling could deplete isolated populations of the long-lived and difficult-to-breed flathead catfish, the species that noodlers typically pursue.