Mano a Fisho

Legal or not, a-noodling they will go

He'd kept the big head in a freezer for two years, waiting to scratch together enough money for a true-to-life trophy. But as the holidays approached, Howard Ramsey was thinking outside the box -- the icebox, that is. The way Ramsey figured, the lifeless head, with its frozen mouth and vacant eyes, would make a dandy centerpiece for a float in the annual Christmas parade.

Ramsey put the frozen head in a cardboard chimney, built an odd-looking Santa, placed Santa's hand in the head's mouth and assembled the entire scene -- Santa pulling a big head out of a chimney -- on a small flatbed trailer. Then Ramsey invited some of his newest best buddies to come to Paris, Mo., the "friendliest town in Little Dixie."

And so it came to pass that on Dec. 7, on Main Street in a small town about 130 miles northwest of St. Louis, there were milkmaids and a marching band, antique cars and a horse-drawn carriage, a homecoming queen -- and Ramsey and his head-grabbing Santa.

Howard Ramsey
David Stephenson/KRT
Howard Ramsey
A 15-pound catfish caught by a noodler in Kentucky
A 15-pound catfish caught by a noodler in Kentucky

Granted, it didn't quite fit the "Twelve Days of Christmas" theme, but Ramsey's float won a few goodnatured chuckles and even a $25 second-place prize. (The six women who showed up as "6 Geesealay'n" took top honors.) As for Ramsey's head -- the remains of a 62-pound flathead catfish he wrestled out of a river in 1998 -- it went back into the freezer.

"I'm going to have it mounted someday, when I can afford it," he says.

For now, though, Howard Ramsey has other fish to fry.

The parade has ended, and Ramsey and his friends have business at the Southern Belle, a tavern on Main Street. It's the place to go for beer served in cans, a round of pool and a meeting of Ramsey's new statewide organization of fishermen. They gather around the big round tables at the Belle, order rounds of Busch, light their cigarettes and talk.

Gather any fishermen and you'll get fish tales, but with Ramsey's group, Noodlers Anonymous, the stories come with a twist and a rumble. Sure, they'll brag, but they prefer that you don't use their real names. Noodlers, you see, catch big catfish by hand. And when they do it in Missouri, they're breaking the law.

What compels these guys to plunge into murky waters, stick their hands into dark holes and hope a fish will bite is unclear, although Beau and Randy -- not their real names -- are happy to offer an explanation. Both are members of a clan near Chillicothe, Mo., that's noodled for more than a generation. An album they've brought includes dozens of pictures of family members posing with trophy catfish. One snapshot memorializes a particularly successful noodling day, when the men pulled out a trifecta of big trophy cats, including an 89-pound blue.

The techniques they employ vary from fish to fish, but Beau says they always begin by locating and identifying an underwater hole where a big cat may be nesting. Then one of the noodlers, the "footer," backs feet-first into the hole to see what's in there. After he makes his report, the designated lead person -- these noodlers always work in teams -- holds his breath, goes down headfirst and gets the fish to chomp down on his hands while others block the fish's escape routes. The big catfish, on his nest, is aggressive and territorial and has rows of tiny teeth that point inward, good enough to get a grip on prey but not big or sharp enough to bite off a finger -- but still enough to scrape a man and draw blood. An experienced noodler, Beau avers, can tell the difference between a blue and a flathead -- a noodler's game fish of choice -- just by the bite. "It's all about feel," Beau says. "A blind man could do this!"

Once the fish clamps down on his hands, the lead man hangs onto the fish's lower lip. With big catfish, that's easier said than done -- the fish's natural instinct is to start turning over and, underwater, the fish has the advantage. Beau and Randy swear a big cat can shake a river and the bank next to it -- they call it "the rumble." ("If you ever hear the rumble, you'll see why we're here," Randy says.) With the lead man gripping the fish, the rest of the team moves in to grab and subdue the fish long enough to pass a rope through the creature's mouth and gills. They haul the fish to shore to be, as Beau says, "dressed like a hog" and turned into catfish fillets. (Beau says about 40 percent of a big fish can be eaten.)

A powerfully built farmer and logger, Beau proudly displays scars from years of encounters with big cats. His hands are covered with telltale marks, and a patch of skin near his left elbow is discolored. That's where a 52-pounder caught him by surprise by attacking from the side. "I thought he was here" -- Beau points in one direction, then another -- "but he was here. The fish moved on me!" Larry, another noodler, chimes in with color commentary: "He fucked up."

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