CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When you feel the inclination to wade into a muddy lake or river, dive under the water, and run your hands into a dark, murky hole submerged on the bank you can now do so in West Virginia. Well, if you wanted to engage in such activity, it’s always been legal, but if you wanted to take those same steps and finish with your fingers gripping the lips of a sizeable catfish, that’s now legal in Mountain State waters.
The practice is called hand-fishing, or more commonly “noodling”. The West Virginia Legislature earlier this year approved rule changes for the Division of Natural Resources which cleared the way for a noodling season here.
Most West Virginians are probably familiar with the practice only from watching TV or YouTube videos. However, in other states, it is an incredibly popular activity.
Sam Naghtin runs a guide service in Cadiz, Kentucky called Kentucky Hand Grabb’in
“They’ll get in anything,” he explained on last weekend’s West Virginia Outdoors. “We catch a lot of blue cats here, but the flatheads are a predator. Their natural instinct is to be hiding in something in the shade.”
Naghtin agreed the practice looks crazy at first glance, but he swore once you’ve wrestled your first 50 pounder out of its lair, there’s no experience to compare. However, it’s not always a violent underwater wrestling match, at times the fish are completely docile.
“A female comes in to lay her eggs, and the male will fertilize them and push her out,” explained Naghtin. “There’s a very narrow window of about two weeks where you’ll have two fish in a hole, and they’re not real aggressive. I’ve seen it when you can pull them out and throw them in the boat and they’ll hardly move.”
However, when the “honeymoon” phase is over and the female has departed the male is guarding the nest. Naghtin said look out.
“You better have some good gloves on because they are mean then,” he explained.
Zeda Pierce of Frazier’s Bottom, West Virginia can testify to the experience. She ventured onto Lake Barkley with Naghtin last year.
“It was a blast,” she laughed. “The best was when we had two catfish in one hole. They found them and told me to grab them, but the water was over my head. I swam down and grabbed one, but when it came out of the hole it swam away dragging me with it!”
She eventually strong armed both cats, 35 and 40 pounds respectively, into the boat. Pierce suggested who wants to swim with dolphins when you can swim with catfish.
Will Goodman of Big Tennessee Adventures is another noodling guide who works on the TVA lakes in upper east Tennessee. Goodman also preaches the gospel of leaving your tackle at home and bringing only what the Good Lord gave you.
“A lot of these guides like to go after flatheads, but I’m going to tell you there is a country mile of difference between a flathead and a blue,” he explained on the radio. “If you want to have a good time the blues are where it’s at.”
It should be noted as West Virginia sportsmen start to venture into the waters of West Virginia for noodling there are rules and they do involve a limit, particularly on the blue catfish. The DNR has been working for several years to restore the blue cats and the rules are designed with their protection in mind. They reflect the limit on blue catfish which applies to conventional tackle fishing.
Here are the rules for West Virginia catfish noodling:
The annual season will run from June 15 to Aug. 31.
Hand-fishing is permitted between sunrise and sunset. However, it is prohibited in all state-managed impoundments except Stonecoal Lake, Hawks Nest Lake, Mount Storm Lake, Cheat Lake and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes.
The daily creel limit for all catfish species taken by hand-fishing is four. Only one fish may be over 35 inches, and only two may be blue catfish. In waters with special regulations, the more restrictive regulations apply. The daily creel limit for hand-fishing counts as part of any daily limit for hook-and-line fishing.
“Noodlers” may only hand-fish in naturally-occurring habitats such as hollow logs and cavities in river banks. The placement or use of artificial cavities and nesting boxes for hand-fishing is prohibited.
The use or possession of hooks, gaffs, spears or anything other than hands while hand-fishing is prohibited, as is the use of bait or fish attractors. The use of SCUBA gear or any other artificial breathing apparatus also is prohibited.
It’s unknown if noodling will catch on in West Virginia. Certainly there are catfish, but the opportunities in West Virginia aren’t nearly as lucrative for success as they are in southern and Midwestern states.
“Those rivers down south are all slow and have undercut banks, All of our streams have a steep gradient and our lakes are steep sided,” said Mark Scott, Assistant Chief for Fisheries with the West Virginia DNR. “We have a few, but to take a phrase from the movie Top Gun, we’re not a ‘target rich environment.'”