Hand grappling. Grapplin’. Noodling. Hand fishing. Call it what you will, it is a deeply rooted passion for some adventuresome anglers and a flashpoint for others. Of course, anything that involves catching, and potentially harvesting, spawning fish is bound to draw some opposition from at least a few anglers and even some fisheries managers.

What do we know about the effect of hand fishing on catfish populations?

Hand fishing for catfish is legal in Mississippi and in 17 other states. The regulations here are very specific:

• Hand fishing is allowed May 1-July 15;

• No hooks or tongs may be used;

• May not alter a natural structure;

• Structures may be added, but they must be wood;

• Neither a natural structure nor a placed structure may be removed from the water to harvest a fish; and

• Hand fishers must have a valid license and comply with regulations in effect.

The effect on populations

The effects of hand-grabbing on Mississippi catfish populations are not known. Permanently removing male catfish guarding and fanning fresh water over an egg mass will very likely result in the loss of the brood. But every spring, most catfish populations produce more progeny than the environment can support. The effect of hand-fishing on a catfish population depends, as it does for all fisheries, on the abundance of fish and the amount of harvest. Detecting any effect of hand-fishing on catfish populations is hampered on both counts.

Assessing catfish populations is difficult, and fisheries biologists have not come to agreement about methods for accurately estimating either the abundance or the size structure of catfish populations. Further, the methods that have been found effective for sampling catfish are different from methods used to sample other recreationally popular fish, such as bass, crappie and sunfish.

If a biologist wants to know about catfish, he needs to sample specifically for catfish. Therefore, in an era of limited fiscal and personnel resources, Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks biologists and those in most other states usually lack sufficient information about catfish populations to detect problems and make management decisions.

Accurate information about catfish harvest is also hard to obtain. MDWFP routinely conducts creel surveys on public reservoirs, but a lot of catfishing occurs in less used and less easily accessible rivers and streams. In reservoirs where creel surveys are conducted, the surveys do not account for night and bank fishing by recreational anglers and harvest by commercial fishermen. Thus, catfish harvest is rarely estimated.

An exception to the harvest-information void is a recent hand-fishing assessment conducted by MDWFP biologist Jerry Brown on Ross Barnett Reservoir. During the two-month seasons in 2007 and 2008, Brown estimated hand-grabbers spent 4,424 and 5,259 hours fishing, and harvested an estimated 3,313 and 2,589 catfish. Fishing parties averaged four anglers, and each party averaged placing 50 catfish boxes in the reservoir. Seventy percent of the hand fishers targeted flathead catfish, and almost all the fish harvested were flatheads and blues. Estimates of total catfish harvest in Barnett are not available, but it is likely that the fish harvested by hand-grabbers were a small percentage of the annual catfish harvest from the Rez.

Mississippi State University fisheries professor Don Jackson and graduate student Jay Francis found hand-grabbing was relatively ineffective. Catfish boxes were installed in the Tallahatchie River and fished once a week during the legal hand-grabbing season. They also fished hoop nets throughout the year. Comparing the catch per catfish box with the catch per net night (one net fished overnight) with hoop nets, the biologists found that catch rates with hoop nets was three times higher for blue cats, 12 times higher for channel cats, and 60 times higher for flatheads than the hand-grabbing catch rates. The size of catfish caught hand-grabbing was significantly larger than those caught with hoop nets.

There is no evidence indicating that the catfish population in the Tallahatchie River is declining, but if a decline were noted I would be more likely to suspect hoop-netting than hand-grabbing was the cause.

No, these two studies do not allow a conclusion about the effect of hand-fishing. There is no evidence to support the conclusion that hand-fishing adversely affects catfish populations where harvests and effects have been measured. It remains a strong possibility that irresponsible anglers intensively hand-grabbing catfish in some of Mississippi’s smaller and less productive streams, especially streams where catfish production may be limited, could damage a catfish population.

Unfortunately MDWFP, like many other state agencies, is not in a position to detect situations where catfish overfishing may occur and must rely on responsible anglers to govern their harvest if they want catfish for the future.

In support of a minimal effect of hand-fishing on catfish populations, Kansas recently expanded the waters where grabbing is legal. Hand-fishing is only allowed for flatheads, but apparently at least one state has sufficient evidence that hand-fishing does not adversely affect flathead populations in reservoirs and large rivers.

Hand-grabbing catfish in Mississippi waters offers a lot of thrill with no ill effects, at least on the fish, at present.

I can’t end this piece without sharing the motto of Noodlers Anonymous, an organized group of handfishers in Missouri: “If you ain’t bleedin’, you ain’t handfishin’.”