Texas study reaffirms no adverse effect of hand fishing
Call it what you will — noodling, grabbing, grappling, tickling, hogging — hand fishing has a long tradition in Mississippi and is still practiced by a segment of anglers that want to add extra excitement to their catfishing. The motto of a hand grabbing club in Missouri: If you ain’t bleedin,’ you ain’t noodling.’
Both blue and flathead catfish are targets for hand grabbers, and bigger is always better. Hand grabbing draws criticism from some non-grabber catfish anglers because they view it as a highly efficient method to capture the largest catfish. And it occurs during the spawning season, leading some to contend that hand grabbing threatens catfish recruitment. Some fisheries biologists have long shared that same concern.
A team of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) fisheries managers and fisheries scientists used a population modeling study to assess the effects of hand grabbing flathead catfish in Lake Palestine, a lake that supports a popular trophy flathead fishery. A study conducted in 2014 found total annual flathead harvest by all gears was low, less than five percent, and that the impacts of hand fishing would likely be negligible. The study also reported that even though hand fishing can be highly selective for large fish and may reduce the abundance of trophy flatheads (fish larger than 30 inches), the exploitation of catfish would need to exceed 30 percent annually — a far higher rate than the current five percent harvest — before overfishing would occur.
At the time, only about one percent of Texas catfish anglers participated in hand grabbing. TPWD concluded that unless hand grabbing participation significantly increased, the existing 5-fish, 18-inch minimum length limit harvest restriction would be sufficient to maintain a sustainable fishery.
But fishing participation is dynamic, and sometimes fishing effort increases. Within a few years, biologists observed a noticeable increase in hand fishing. TPWD conservation officers also noted an increase in the number of citations for illegal hand-fishing activities. Concerns resurfaced.
Taking a second look
The TPWD fisheries team repeated their flathead catfish population assessment efforts in 2018. They found no significant change in any of their population measures between 2014 and 2018.
Electrofishing catch rates of all flathead catfish and trophy flatheads did not differ between 2014 and 2018. Further, the size distributions — the number of fish in each four-inch length group — and the average length of the fish captured did not differ between 2014 and 2018.
The takeaway on catfish management
Population modeling is a commonly used tool to estimate the effects of angler harvest — and regulations that affect angler harvest — on sport fish populations. The models are used to guide management, but rarely are the population responses predicted by the model validated. This pair of studies was relatively unique in that it provided a chance to test the model predictions. And the model predictions were correct.
Unfortunately, flathead catfish exploitation was not measured in the 2018 study. However, a perceived noticeable increase in hand fishing activity — and, presumably, harvest — had no significant effect on the flathead population. If flathead harvest increased, the comparison of the 2014 and 2018 studies point to the resilience of catfish populations.
That should not be interpreted as catfish represent an infinite resource. All fish populations can be overharvested, diminishing the fish’s abundance, size, structure, or both. But at present levels of fishing exploitations, catfish populations remain strong and hand grabbing is not a problem.
Hand fishing in Mississippi
Do the Lake Palestine results apply to Mississippi’s rivers and reservoirs? Probably so. For now.
Catfish hand grabbers in Mississippi should be aware of the current regulations in place:
- Season: May 1 to July 15
- Hand grabbing is not allowed in MDWFP state or state park lakes.
- Artificial spawning structures must be made of wood. It is unlawful to place structures such as plastic or metal barrels, hot water tanks, concrete pipe, tires, and other non-biodegradable materials in any public waters of the state. Placing artificial structures in the TTW is prohibited, and special permits might be required for other lakes or streams. Anglers must check with authorities before adding any structure to any public waters.
- It is unlawful to raise any part of a natural or wooden container out of the water to aid in the capture of the fish.
- Ropes can be used, but use of hooks or grappling tongs is illegal
- It is unlawful to alter any natural spawning cavities by placing boards, wire, or any other obstructions around the cavity or to take fish from such altered cavities.
- Hand grabbers can use compressed air to dive.