Catfish Noodling: Getting to Grips With a Unique Style of Fishing
Nov 4, 2019 | 7 minute read Comments
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Catfish noodling takes the cake for the most unique type of fishing in America. In fact, many anglers don’t think of it as fishing at all.Three men holding a Catfish out of the water with a boat flying the American flag behind them

Throughout the South and across the Midwest, people spend their summers waist-deep in water and elbow-deep in huge Catfish. It’s every bit as extreme as it sounds, and is illegal in most states. Unsurprisingly, it’s a controversial topic among freshwater enthusiasts.

What exactly is Catfish noodling? Who in their right mind thought of it? And why is it a hot topic among catfishers and conservationists? We waded into these muddy waters to try and make sense of the issue.

What is Noodling?

Simply put, noodling involves finding a Catfish hiding underwater, sticking your arm in its mouth, and dragging it out of the water with your bare hands. You use your own fingers as bait and the Catfish’s bite as the hook. Because of this, noodling is also known as “hand-fishing” or “grabbling,” as well as more inventive names like “gurgling” and “cat-daddling.”

Where Did Catfish Noodling Come From?

A man in a green shirt holding a Flathead Catfish to face the camera

Once upon a time, someone looked at this fish and thought “I’m going to stick my hand in its mouth.”

People have probably been noodling Catfish for as long as they’ve known how to swim. Native Americans had certainly got it down by the time the first European explorers arrived. Some settlers learned how to do it, but it didn’t become common until the Great Depression when people started using it to put food on the table. Since then, noodling has grown into a family tradition in many parts of the country.

So, is it just an American thing? Not exactly. Cultures all over the world have developed some way of catching fish with your hands. Early settlers must have seen noodling as an extreme form of Trout tickling, a traditional style of hand-fishing in Europe. The difference is in the sheer size of the fish noodlers catch.

Where is Catfish Noodling Popular?

Noodling is most popular along the path of the Mississippi River, from Wisconsin all the way to Louisiana. It’s legal in 16 states, mainly in the South and the Midwest. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s up from only four states in 2001. In fact, more states are legalizing it every year – most recently West Virginia, which passed a new law on noodling in June 2018.

A map of where Catfish noodling is legal in the US.

Catfish noodling is legal across most of the South and Midwest. That’s not the only place it’s popular, though.

And that’s just where it’s legal. “Outlaw fishing” is a genuine problem in some states. In Missouri, for example, Catfish are seen as a game fish more than in most places and illegal noodlers are caught every summer.

Why Catfish?

At first glance, Catfish seem like the last species you would want to go mano a mano with. Catfish caught by hand can weigh well over 40 pounds. On top of that, they’re aggressive, they’re slimy, and they spend their lives digging through mud. It’s a far cry from tickling a Trout in a clean mountain stream.

A Flathead Catfish with its mouth open on the deck of a boat

Catfish are many things, but pretty isn’t one of them. (USFWS, CC-BY-2.0)

However, there is a good reason people specifically noodle for Catfish: they don’t have teeth. A Catfish’s mouth is like sandpaper. It’s designed to grip anything that goes in and stop it from coming out. That’s great when Cats are hunting, but it also makes it much easier for noodlers to drag them out of their hidey-holes.

How to Noodle for Catfish

So, you know the broad strokes of what noodling entails and have a vague idea of how it all works. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, though. Here’s a run-down of how to grab a Catfish.

Time it Right

Noodlers aren’t looking after just any Catfish. They specifically target large males guarding their eggs after breeding. Catfish spawning season runs throughout the summer. As soon as the weather turns warm, people start searching their favorite honey holes on the hunt for this year’s trophy.

Find a Hole

A narrow creek of brown water with trees on either size and a small patch of blue sky at the top.

The smallest creeks often hold the biggest Cats.

Catfish nest just about anywhere they can easily guard their eggs. Rocks, logs, caves, banks – even boat ramps can be great places to look. Once a noodler settles on a spot, they block all the exits and stop the fish from escaping. Usually, one person takes on the fish while the others help to block its path and make sure they don’t run into any trouble.

Wear a Glove?

You can go noodling with nothing more than the shirt on your back. In fact, the first recorded sightings of Native Americans hand-grabbing fish mention them wrapping their clothes around their arms to entice the fish and protect their skin. These days, many noodlers wear special sleeves to prevent “river rash” – cuts and scrapes from the fish’s sandpaper bite.

Grab and Pull

This is where things can get dangerous. The hand-fisher tests the hole and feels for a Catfish. If they find one, they stick their arm in farther until the fish bites, then grab on. After that, it’s a case of muscling the fish out of the hole and onto land. If the noodler finds something else, they move away as quickly as possible and try a different spot – more on that later.

Catfish Controversy

A woman sitting holding a giant Blue Catfish on a boat.

The debate over catching Catfish can grow as big as the fish themselves.

You may be wondering why noodling is illegal in most states. There’s no law against catching Catfish in general, after all, and noodling is very much a niche even in states where it’s allowed. Hand-fishing has its fair share of criticism and controversy, though.

Some see noodling as unsportsmanlike, as the fish don’t have the chance to escape and are forced to bite in order to protect their eggs. However, for most people, the issue is that hand-fishing is dangerous, both for the people doing it and for the species they go after.

Impacts of Catfish Noodling

A man holding a large Catfish over his shoulder after a noodling trip. In the background, water and the far bank of a river.

Catching fish this size always has an impact on the waters they live in.

The problem is that noodling specifically targets large, breeder males while they’re guarding their eggs. Harvesting these fish leaves the eggs defenseless. According to a spokesman from the Missouri Department of Conservation, these unguarded eggs usually develop algae and die soon afterward, wiping out thousands of the next generation of Catfish.

But it’s only a problem if they keep them, right? Surely people can just release most of the fish. Not exactly.

Catching Catfish by hand tends to damage the fish. The most common places to grab hold are its jaw, its gill plate, and its guts – all things a fish needs in good working order if it’s going to survive. Even if the fish does survive, all that thrashing around can easily destroy the eggs. It seems like noodling is a great way of harvesting fish, but a terrible way of protecting their population.

Dangers of Catfish Noodling

A smiling man wearing glasses holding a large Catfish with its mouth open.

A scraped knuckle can be the least of your worries when noodling for Catfish.

As you can imagine, wrestling a 40 lb fish out of a narrow hole while you’re half- (or even completely) submerged in water comes with a few risks. If your clothes snag while you’re underwater, you can easily drown. That’s why noodlers always work in groups, with spotters on hand in case things go wrong.

Snags aside, there are plenty of dangers hiding under the surface. Large Catfish pack a serious punch. They can knock the wind out of you and even break bones. It’s not the fish that noodlers worry about most, though, it’s what else could be hiding in the hole. Snapping turtles, muskrats, beavers, venomous snakes – even alligators, depending on where you are. All things you absolutely don’t want taking a bite out of you.

A Tradition Worth Keeping?

Three men and a boy standing on the banks of a river holding Catfish.

There are arguments for and against Catfish noodling. Most noodlers see it as a time-honored tradition which their families have been doing for generations. On the other hand, it clearly is a threat to Catfish populations, which is probably why a 2005 survey found that avid Catfishers are actually more likely to oppose noodling than your average angler.

The truth is that this strong sense of tradition and the fact that noodling happens in pretty remote places mean that many people will keep doing it even if it is illegal. According to research from the University of Missouri, around 9% of anglers in the state have tried noodling, despite it being illegal.

Noodling is one of those things that seems harmless enough at first glance, especially when only a small group of people is doing it. Learn a little more about it, though, and it starts looking like just about the least sustainable way to catch Catfish. Besides, who wants to risk meeting the business end of a snake or a snapping turtle?

What’s your take on noodling – are you for or against? Have you ever tried doing it yourself? We would love to hear your thoughts and stories, so drop us a line in the comments below!

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Comments (6)
  • Charles Warner

    May 18, 2019

    I’m from Missouri, and believe noodling should be legalized. Everyone says how noodling hurts the population, which I believe is true to some extent, but running bank lines and rod and reeling does too. If we he had laws in place were a person is allowed one or two fish a year would be good , there are a lot of greedy people out there that take everything they catch. A noodler shouldn’t be allowed to use gloves, hooks , nets , or shoes. A true noodler does it the Indian way , bare hands. In my eyes if you get caught with gloves on while noodling you should loose your fishing license for life. Noodling is a sport in my eyes and should be legal. It’s like any thing else that has to do with hunting and fishing. If you respect the animals and fish they will be around here for us to enjoy all of our lives. There is a lot of trash talk on noodlers, but what about the people that run bank lines and catch more fish in a weekend than a hand fisherman catches in 2 years. Same with rod and reels. This never gets mentioned. You hunt Turkey when there gobbling, chase monster whitetail during the rut , fish when they bite the best . Good luck to you noodlers, don’t get greedy , show your kids the way and don’t be a whimp and wear gloves.

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      May 20, 2019

      Hi Charles,

      Thanks for the comment. You’re completely right that over-harvesting with any technique can be dangerous to the species.

      I’ve read a lot about “outlaw fishing” in Missouri (noodling despite it being illegal), do you think that people might actually catch fewer fish if there was a small, legal limit?

      Thanks again for sharing.

      Tight lines!

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  • Doris Ballard

    May 21, 2019

    I live in SC where noodling is legal without using hooks or bait. Noodlers have destroyed my boat ramp to the extent that I have to go somewhere else to launch my boat. In addition, I have reported the noodlers to SCDNR and SC Electric that owns the lake that the noodlers are using pvc pipe with a short line and a hook to pull the catfish from their nesting spot…all to no avail. They even come when my family is fishing from the dock or swimming in the lake. I think noodling should be illegal during nesting season and also on private property. While my ramp is technically not my property because it is in the lake…if my ramp is repaired it will be me that pays for it and I refuse to repair it so inconsiderate people can just tear it up again.

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      Nathan Williams

      May 22, 2019

      You do realize Doris, that noodlers in no way can be hurting your ramp right… In fact catfish burrow out most sand under a ramp… after many years and several different catfish nesting under a ramp it will be so hollow under there that it will break off… If anything the noodlers removing the tunnel digging fish helped prolong the life of your ramp.. I understand disrespectful noodlers could be an agravation to you if they roll up while you guys are enjoying the shoreline. I personally try to be courteous and not pull up to noodle near anyone fishing or swimming from shore.

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  • Gordon Rohrbacker

    Nov 16, 2019

    I’ve tried it and enjoyed the stimulation of reaching into a hole on the river bank. Although I have never caught a big catfish. I hope to in the future. I am undecided about the impact of the population. Because I need to see more real research on this. But it’s fun and you should try it

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      Nov 18, 2019

      Hi Gordon,

      Thanks for sharing.

      Sadly, current research does point to it resulting in the loss of most or all of the hatch of eggs each time a fish is caught.

      However, as Charles mentioned above, it also comes down to how many people are doing it, and how often.

      Hopefully, we’ll see more research into the effects of noodling in the future that can help people do it more sustainably.

      Tight lines!

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