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Deep beneath the electric-green pond on Howard Ramsey's spread near Paris, Missouri, lurks the 64-pound flathead catfish he caught last year. Still swimming ten months after the catch, Ramsey's quarry does not owe its continued existence to an angler's sentimental tribute to a worthy adversary.
Ramsey just has other plans for his fish.
"We have in Paris every year what we call 'Fall into Paris,'" says the mustachioed Ramsey, who has lived in this wooded nook about two hours northwest of St. Louis for the past twelve of his sixty-one years. "We were going to have a booth up there, and we were going to sell catfish to eat, but we were also going to have a tank with a big flathead and a big blue catfish."
Unfortunately, Ramsey's plan to show off his catch hit a snag when he was unable to extract the monster cat from the pond behind his home. Today he concedes that if he ever manages to recapture the flathead, he might return it to its native river. So far, though, he hasn't been able to bring himself to let the fish go.
That might have something to do with how he caught it.
"This fish was about six or eight foot back in a hollow log," Ramsey explains. "So my son pushed me into the hole headfirst and grabbed my ankles."
Wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, Ramsey found himself submerged in the river's cloudy water and nose to nose with the fish, which was guarding its cache of eggs. Ramsey put his hands in front of him as he approached, inducing the flathead to attack with its weapon-like lower jaw.
In other words, he had that catfish right where he wanted him.
"He's chewing me any place he can grab," Ramsey says. "Then I put both hands in his lower jaw, and"
Thinking better of divulging a bit of hard-won strategy, the fisherman says tersely: "Well, I'm not going to tell you all the secrets."
With a kick of his feet, Ramsey signaled his son, Mark, to pull him to the surface. But the younger Ramsey pulled too fast, and the silver-haired angler lost his grip.
Surfacing, Ramsey and his son rushed to seal the log's opening. They could hear a portentous whomp! whomp! whomp!from inside the log the warning sound catfish make by rushing water over their gills.
By now Ramsey's hands and wrists were bleeding from their encounter with the cat's coarse, sandpaper-like teeth a condition known to the initiated as "river rash." Still, he persevered.
Whatever it took, Ramsey was going to noodle this fish.
Whomp! Whomp! Whomp!
"My son shoved me back in the hole again. The cat's chewing on me, but I finally got both hands in his mouth, kicked my feet and my son pulled me back out," Ramsey says. "I inverted myself at that time with both hands in his mouth, and wrapped my legs around the fish's tail. My son actually grabbed my entire body and held my head up out of the water with the fish in my lap.
"I've got that on video," he adds.
After nearly half a century spent noodling in Missouri's rivers, Ramsey's arms are cross-hatched with catfish battle scars. His right shoulder carries a catfish tattoo, and his truck's vanity plate reads, "GRAB ON" noodler lingo for sticking one's hand inside a catfish's mouth.
"I've been in as far back as three-man deep," he boasts as he loads the DVD player. "I swam in the hole, the guy held my ankles. He swam in the hole, and the third guy held his ankles. When you get the fish, the first guy kicks, and the second guy kicks, and the third guy pulls you out.
"Now, why is this illegal?"
Why is noodling illegal? Ramsey has been asking that question since at least 1991, when a game warden caught him hand-fishing in the middle fork of the Salt River and slapped him with a $500 fine.
"I can noodle in six states that touch Missouri but I can't noodle in Missouri," says Ramsey, who retired two years ago from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. "In Missouri, if I catch a trophy catfish on a line I'm considered a hero, but if I catch one by hand I'm breaking the law. That's not right."
Fed up with what he saw as the Missouri Department of Conservation's double standard, in 1999 Ramsey founded Noodlers Anonymous, an advocacy group that aims to persuade the department to legalize hand-fishing.
Ramsey printed up fliers and T-shirts, Noodlers Anonymous baseball caps, bomber jackets and pins, even DVDs. One of the state's most vocal advocates for what has been considered, since 1919, a form of poaching, Ramsey says his group's ranks have swelled to nearly 500 members.
"A lot of them don't want their names out," he explains. "They call me and tell me they want to be a member, send me a T-shirt but don't write my name down in your membership file."
Through tireless lobbying efforts in Jefferson City and round after round of mailings to state legislators and conservation department officials, Noodlers Anonymous prevailed in 2005, when the MDC legitimized the sport by approving a five-year experimental hand-fishing season in Missouri.