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Recipe for change: Fish, booze and noodlers
Mark Davis - Staff
Sunday, March 6, 2005


Leave the bass boats and fancy fishing rigs to those fellows with the smooth palms and hundred-dollar sunglasses. For real fishing --- that's noodling, hoss --- all you need are your hands.

A six-pack or two --- a little courage to help ease into the dark shallows where the monsters lurk --- doesn't hurt, either.

Oh, and bring a buddy along to back you up when the water churns and a catfish with a back as broad as the 50-cent pony ride outside Wal-Mart busts the surface. You don't want to be on that slippery slope, alone, when he bites your hand and rolls.

Just ask the expert, Howard Ramsey, who's been yanking catfish out of rivers since that day 46 years ago when his daddy told him to reach into an underwater hole, and a 4-pound blue catfish chomped down on his 12-year-old hand. If you'll pardon the pun, he's been hooked ever since.

"Once he gets out of that hole, that's when the flopping starts," said Ramsey, a Paris, Mo., enthusiast who has emerged as something of a national spokesman for noodling. "That's when you got to get on his back."

But, unlike that little pony outside Wal-Mart, this ride isn't legal in Georgia --- for now, anyway.

At present, the gentle art of wrestling a catfish out of its hidey hole, also called grabbling, hand-fishing or hogging, is illegal in Georgia. State Rep. Pete Warren (D-Augusta) thinks that's just not right.

Without a ripple of dissent, the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed his noodling bill, which would amend the law that allows freshwater fish to be taken only with pole, rod-and-reel or trotline. The Senate is the bill's next stop.

Speaking for his bill, Warren had to enlighten a few of the honorables on the finer points of noodling, which is legal in 12 states, including neighboring Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.

"You know, [it's] what we would do when we were young 'uns," he told a curious colleague. "We'd reach up in the creek bank and pull that catfish out."

Pulling your own tooth may be easier.

//At your own risk //

Noodlers go after catfish during the spring, when the fish whisker their way into hollow logs or into holes in riverbanks, lake beds and creeksides to spawn. There, the female lays the eggs and the male guards them, hovering over the glutinous mass with single-minded intent.

Just as single-minded, just as intent, are the noodlers.

"I don't think it requires any great deal of brains," said Perry Houck, 80, a retired Augusta sporting-goods store owner. "I never saw any Ph.D.'s doing it."

Small wonder. Consider Pylodictus olivaris, the flathead catfish. A fully grown flathead easily exceeds 50 pounds and stretches 4 feet or longer. The state record, set in 1998, is 63 pounds, 8 ounces. They are voracious eaters, and, when their eggs are threatened, as pleasant as a hornet.

"Catfish, being real protective, reach out and grab your hand," said Reggie Weaver, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources who's noodled in his native Tennessee.

His biggest catch? An irritated 20-pounder he found behind a rock in a TVA reservoir. "I wrassled him out," said Weaver, a touch of pride in his voice. "He was a really good fish."

Noodling is fun so long as you are prepared, said Hal Coleman of Roswell. He's primarily a turtler --- he yanks snapping turtles out of holes --- but occasionally will reach into the muddy dark and find a catfish, beaver or snake instead.

"I'll tell you this only anecdotally," he said, "but I think it does help to have a drink when you go."

Noodling is a cultural thing, handed from grandpappy to daddy to sons and daughters, said Wiley Prewitt of Oxford, Miss. He's studied southern hunting and fishing traditions and is a consultant to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

"It seems to be that you get introduced to it through your family," said Prewitt, whose father, 65, recently took up noodling again after laying it aside for three decades. "It's not the first thing you would think about, to get in the water and grab a fish with your bare hands."

//'Girls Gone Grabbling' //

It is if you're hungry, said R.J. Baurle, who owns the Lock and Dam Bait and Tackle Shop in Augusta.

When the trotlines came up empty, he said, he and his buddies would go after the fish, corralling them with seine nets or reaching into holes to jerk them to the surface. They had good reason: Back in the 1930s, when he was a kid, a big fish meant supper.

"You stick your finger in and wait for him to bite," said Baurle, 80. "I'm too damn old now. Ain't no way I'd do it now."

Does anyone noodle anymore? They do in Tennessee, and they do it for the camera. A few years ago, Athens, Tenn., resident Marty Jenkins began videotaping his buddies yanking up catfish, howling and having a high old time. "Catfish Grabblers," available in VHS and DVD, is an account of their exploits.

Last summer, Jenkins ventured into the water again, this time accompanied by 35 women, ages 18 to 55. His latest DVD, "Girls Gone Grabbling," captures those special moments between winsome females and whiskered fish. It's $14.99 and just hit the market, he said.

"I hope it sells," Jenkins said. "It's just hilarious."

Yes, but does anyone noodle here, in Georgia? Wildlife officers and fishing guides all over the state said this week they'd heard of noodling and had known folks who prowled rivers and creeks in pursuit of bragging-rights catfish. But no one admits to it now.

Maybe that's because noodling is a misdemeanor, with fines varying from county to county, suggested Capt. Barry Fincher, who works as a DNR enforcement officer at the agency's Macon offices.

Or maybe no one admits to it because professing noodling is about the same as saying you chase parked cars.

"I've heard that most of them were partly inebriated," Fincher said. "I'm not about to stick my hand or foot where I can't see."













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