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.”

Human Journey