Noodling is a primitive form of fishing, mostly lacking in finesse or refinement or, say, tackle.
Noodling is hardcore. A scary, high testosterone, man-against-beast activity that cost the man a finger or two.
Noodling: the act of catching big, aggressive, spawning catfish using bare hands.
Now that noodling is legal in Texas, state Parks and Wildlife biologists want to track the activity to determine how many folks are doing it, what techniques they are using, how many fish they are catching and how big those fish are.
To do this, TPWD folks will capture, tag and release about 250 flathead catfish in Lake Palestine. Flatheads tend to be the number one target of noodlers. To improve the odds that noodlers will report their catches, TPWD is offering a reward for tag returns that specify the age and breeding status of the fish.
“We’re just trying to figure out what’s happening to these fish,” says Craig Bonds, regional director in Tyler. “If we’re going to regulate this kind of fishing, we’d like to know the impact of it at the population level.”
There are three main reasons for monitoring the activity. First, flathead catfish grow to very large sizes, but they grow slowly, taking several years to reach breeding maturity. Second, noodlers tend to harvest (keep, cook and eat) the fish they catch. And third, most flathead noodling takes places during spawning in April, May and June. Once a fish is taken off the nest that nest is done. “We know it’s detrimental to that individual nest and you have the harvest of that individual fish,” Bonds says. “But we don’t know the answer to the question of what level of fisheries exploitation there might be to taking them then.”
Noodling is different in many ways to other kinds of flathead fishing. Old-timers that I grew up with along the Sabine River in East Texas would take nails through their toes before they’d give up secret fishing spots or even tell that they’d caught a big flathead, also known as an “opelousas” catfish to them. They were secretive and sly.
Today’s noodlers are a little different. There are noodling TV shows, even bikini noodling, and lots of folks are getting in on the phenomenon, especially younger anglers who might be snowboarding if they lived in the mountains. But they don’t live in the mountains, they live in Texas and Oklahoma and Louisiana, and many of them get their thrills sticking their hands down into holes and crevices and trying to get a giant catfish to bite down on it.
When the fish does latch on, they haul it out and carry it off to the fryer. There are some tournaments where the fish are released after they’re weighed, Bonds said.
But mainly, this is about the fish and the impact that noodling has on them. “We need to determine what percentage of the population is exploited,” Bonds says. “Hand fishing is a harvest oriented sport. We have no problem with catching and releasing them in the same body of water.”
“Flatheads don’t have the same reproductive capacity that channels and blues do,” Bonds says. “They don’t produce as many offspring annually, and so they’re more vulnerable to over fishing. We want to get the science to make sure.”
Bonds noted that handfishing is legal in Texas and that TPWD doesn’t want hand fishermen to think that “we’re picking on them. We’re not. We just want to know how many fish are being caught and to have some idea about their size so we can learn more about handfishing in general.”
Bonds says department biologists will be using shocking boats in March to gather the 250 fish that will be needed for the study. Then anglers will be asked to return tags they find no matter how the fish is caught. That will give the department a better idea about how many are being caught, by what methods and also the ages of the fish.