Human Journey

The Politics of Catfish Noodling

I’m sure you’ve been wondering many things about the new Republican vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan. Because National Geographic is not a political publication, we will skip all the political issues and get right to the detail that caught our attention: Mr. Ryan likes to go “catfish noodling.”

There doesn’t seem to be an accepted theory about the origin of the term “noodling.” But there is a clear definition of the sport. Noodlers reach into the underwater nest of a catfish, which may be hidden in a log or old tire or some other nook. They seek, with bare hands, to remove the male, whose job it is to guard the eggs and ward off predators. Noodling happens while males are protecting the next generation of catfish. The males do not leave the nest on their own while caring for the eggs, even to feed. Their reaction to a hand entering the nest cavity is meant to defend the nest, not to attack potential prey. The size of the male can vary. Maybe just a pound or two. Maybe 20 pounds. The record catfish caught by a noodler clocked in at 58 pounds.

A catfish doesn’t have teeth, but the bony stubs in its mouth can do some damage to a noodler.

Noodling is legal in some states, illegal in others. Joe Jerek, spokesman for Missouri Department of Conservation (where noodling is not allowed), shed some light on the practice.

What happens if the male is removed from the nest? “Our research shows that within 12 hours, a fungus forms on the eggs and they die,” says Jerek, “killing thousands of potential new catfish in a single act.”

How does the removal of a male affect ecosystems? Catfish are “long lived and grow slow.” And the males that protect the nests the best are the best breeders. So if you catch and remove the male, “that has an immense impact on local catfish population.”

Would catch and release be an alternative? In theory, yes. But even if you were to catch and release a catfish, the fish could suffer. “There’s always potential, through the act of catching the fish, of damaging the egg clusters themselves, and potentially damaging the fish. These catfish do not go quietly into the night. You’re sticking your hand into their mouth. They fight and struggle.”

Is noodling popular? “It’s a small segment of the population that does it. Many folks go, ‘What are you crazy? Why would I stick my hand down in muddy water in a hole? What if there’s a snapping turtle?”

It’s not really fair to the catfish, is it? “I totally agree. It’s not fair.”

  • B.MIller

    For being a non-political piece it certainly seems to suggest that anyone that noodles, including Mr. Ryan, is committing an irresponsible act that potentially threatens a species. A bit over the top, don’t you think?


    I know the folks who took him noodling, and I am a noodling guide myself. First of all, just because he loves catfish grabbling doesn’t make him a bad person or suggest he makes mistakes. He is a normal person just like the rest of us. Secondly, I can assure you these that are caught are released back into the same spawning nest they were caught from. I would also suggest that rod and reel fishing damages our fish population much more than noodlers do. Lastly, I believe you should not be so quick to judge a noodler for fear of the unknown or for fear you will never truly know personally the practices ee actually follow which are very sportsman like.


    Yes I certainly believe it is over the top. Ive been noodling for years and most anyone you have to drag to the lake to try it. There are so many noodlers wading the rivers waiting to get bit!

  • Marion Kincaid

    Ya caint be no sissy lol those are the people agianst it because they are scared “be the bait” catfish king 🙂

  • john

    noodling is about as smart as hunting grizzly bears with a buggy whip

  • Gary Webb

    I know that you are a Missouri Resident and it sounds like someone in the Conservation Department has brain washed you. When you quoted Joe Jerek stating, “Catfish are “long lived and grow slow.” And the males that protect the nests the best are the best breeders.” There is no such thing as a “best breeder”, after the age of 1 to 2 years old all catfish breed annually for the rest of their life. When you quoted Joe Jerek stating, “It’s not really fair to the catfish, is it? “I totally agree. It’s not fair.” Dr. Don Jackson Past President of the American Fisheries Society, Mississippi State University stated in his final report on one of his two hand grabbling studies, “The perception that hand grabbling is not sporting resides primarily with those individuals who have not participated in this activity.” Marc have you ever participated in this activity? When you quoted Joe Jerek stating, “How does the removal of a male affect ecosystems? Catfish are “long lived and grow slow.”” Marc, all anglers are catching those same fish year round. Joe Jerek, Spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation shed some light on this practice. As a member of Noodler’s Anonymous with the title of Historian and Researcher, maybe Joe Jerek and the readers should visit our Facebook page, Missouri Noodler’s, for a short video and an explanatory letter about the fabricated and misleading information distributed by the Missouri Department of Conservation concerning hand fishing. You might share this information with the Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine, Chris Johns. It seems ironic the National Geographic Channel is presently airing a ten-segment, hour-long, noodling show called “Mud Cats”.

  • Tyler Helm

    you can’t be no sissy and go noodling for catfish in rivers.

  • michael browning “swamp donkey noodlin'”

    Ok here’s the thing…bass tournaments held in april and may…bass are on the beds spawning. crappie is at its best the same…when spawning. bluegill/perch perfect sight fishing when on their beds spawning as well. deer hunting at its finest when???….exactly the rut ..breeding season. so what’s the difference. its a sport sum choose to participate sum don’t. ill never stop noodlin I’ve been doin it sibce my grandpa showed me when i was eight. now thirty the sport has exploded into a huge sport. if conservationists are so quick to ban it because we are so called ruining the fishery why not make a noodler purchase a noodling stamp. much like the duck stamp and use the money strickly for bettering catfish habbitat and stocking in noodled lakes. yes its dangerous so are many other sports but when u participate u slso know the dangers and possibility of injury. it makes no sense noodling should be legal everywhere

  • Sam Sam

    You people who noodle are threatening catfish populations and it does take a very long time for catfish to reach the size you want for hand fishing. When the fish disappear or begin to become scarce laws will be passed to save what arrogant people have destroyed. Sure, it’s exciting to hand fish but it’s also irresponsible and unethical. People just have to have the excitement though and a chance to prove how tough they are. There’s nothing like an adrenaline rush. It’s sad that people entertain themselves in this way. The catfish is doing what is instinctive, it is what had for an eternity preserved the populations. Now come some idiots looking for a good time at the expense of a population of fish. Human behavior will never change nor will it be altered until laws are passed or until most of those fish go the way of the dinosaurs. Think I’m wrong, check back in about 30 years, oh, sorry, I’ll probably be dead by then like those noodled catfish.

  • SallyMae49418

    Oklahoma has very successfully thwarted no-noodle arguments. It does nothing to mess up fish populations. Fair to the fish? What? You mean the INDIVIDUAL fish? Since it isn’t hurting the fish population as a whole it’s fair enough to the fish. I can’t imagine having a hook in my mouth and suffocating out of water would be any fairer to me if I were a fish. I’ve hand-fished from my own property’s waters quite often for all manner of fish and it just freakin’ amazes me, in the face of all these non-hand-fish blowhards that I have scads of freakin’ fish still in my property’s waters. This issue is about (1) “No fair!, you hand fishers are taking the trophy fishes we want to catch with a pole!” And (2) Funneling money to various industry. So, quit whining, crybaby. I found a better way to get a trophy fish and I’m willing to take the risk to do it. Besides tens of thousands of trophy fish are caught every year. It should never be my job to support any industry that can’t compete on it’s own. If I can catch a fish with my own two hands and never have to sink a dime into buying equipment, good for me.

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