Noodling for catfish in full swing in June

Flathead catfish are the primary targets of noodlers, but in lakes where blue catfish are established, they can be caught by hand in good numbers and sizes, like this one. (Picture by Phillip Gentry)

Like a lot of people, I have several life rules, one of which involves sticking my hand anywhere I can’t see what is in said place. Basically, my rule of thumb — since I want to keep my thumb and other digits — is that I don’t even stick my hand in a closet without first turning on the light.

That is the No. 1 reason why I, retiring after more than 40 years in the business of outdoor writing, have never participated in the sport of noodling. Noodling is fishing for catfish by hand, and it involves sticking your arm into a likely spawning den, wiggling your fingers and hoping the big fish inside BITES you. The idea is that when it does you can lock on to the fish and pull it out and wrestle it to the surface.

Uh, no thanks.

I’m chicken; I was when I was 25 and am even more so now as a lot older and wiser human.

The peak month

Mississippi is one of 16 states where noodling is legal, and its season is May 1 to July 15. June is the peak month as spring rains slow and water temperatures rise to suitable spawning conditions: 70 to 84 degrees for blues and 70 to 75 degrees for flatheads.

The season is set to coincide with the catfish spawning season, since the art of grabbing big catfish alive by hand depends on the fish’s natural spawning instinct and spawning process.

“The whole idea is to catch the big male guarding the nest of eggs prior to hatching,” said Gary Barnes, a noodling fanatic from Brandon. “You might get lucky and catch both the male and female in the same spot if you hit the brief window during which mama comes in to lay her eggs. That happens more often in early June, like the first two weeks. She doesn’t stay around long.”

Biologists say the male prepares the nest in a cavity, like a hollow log, stump, hole in the riverbank, under a boat ramp, old treetop, culvert or a man-made “fish house.” Then, he sets out to entice a female into the cavity.

Once they are together, the female lays her eggs and the male  fertilizes them and immediately drives the female away. The male takes sole custody of the eggs and stays to protect them, and he will do anything to protect them, including biting an intruding hand.

What you can catch

Flathead catfish are the most-targeted species, but big blues are also available since both species look for dark, hollow spots that protect their offspring against current and predators.

“The flatheads are the best eating, but the blues put up the biggest ruckus,” Barnes said. “My team is in it more for fun than for food, so we let most of the flatheads we catch go, keeping only the smaller ones, and by smaller, I mean under 25 pounds. We keep more blues because they are more plentiful in the lakes where we noodle, Barnett Reservoir and Eagle Lake, but we usually let anything over 40 or 50 pounds go either way.

“We used to keep everything, but I was at a business function one night in another state where noodling is illegal. The guest speaker was a fisheries biologist. He was asked why noodling had never been legalized there, and he said it was because his agency thought it was detrimental to the catfish population, flatheads in particular. Removing the male and/or female could cause the loss of that couple’s entire spawn, as well as removing a breeder from the lake. Over years of noodling, it was felt that it would have a domino effect.”

Barnes said his group became more particular about what they killed after that.

Fear of the unknown is the biggest limiting factor on noodling participants in Mississippi, but the possible impacts on the catfish population is the limiting factor nationally.

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About Bobby Cleveland 1352 Articles
Bobby Cleveland has covered sports in Mississippi for over 40 years. A native of Hattiesburg and graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, Cleveland lives on Ross Barnett Reservoir near Jackson with his wife Pam.

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