Noodling for Catfish

Catfish in California may only be taken by angling and not hand (noodling). This 25 lb. channel catfish was taken in Irvine by Marlon Meade. (Photo by Dave Strege)

Question: I saw a story on a morning news show this week talking about “noodling for catfish” in Oklahoma. This reminded me of when I lived in South Carolina where it was legal to “noodle.” I know it sounds crazy but it is a lot of fun. I would like to try it again but cannot find anything in the California fish and game laws covering this. I do not want to be in violation if it is illegal. Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated. Thank you. (S. Freeman, Riverside)

Answer: Good question. I have both good news and bad news on this one for you.

First the bad news … despite how much fun it probably is, noodling for catfish is not legal in California because catfish (and nearly every California fish in inland waters) may only be legally taken through angling. That means: “To take fish by hook and line with the line held in the hand, or with the line attached to a pole or rod held in the hand or closely attended in such manner that the fish voluntarily takes the bait or lure in its mouth” (CCR Title 14, Section 1.05).

The following are the only exceptions allowing for freshwater fish to be taken by hand: 1) bait fish, 2) lamprey, 3) crayfish, 4) live carp in the Colorado River District that will be used for bait, and 5) suckers, but the exceptions only apply to you if you’re a registered member of the Pit River Indian Tribe in Shasta County.

Now for the good news … you get to keep your fingers!

What is Noodling? “Noodling” is a type of hand fishing for catfish that is legally practiced in rivers, lakes or ponds in a handful of southeastern states. Noodling is when a person wades or swims into water at least chest deep and inserts a hand down into holes under mud banks, rocks, or inside of hollow logs. Then, using bare hands as bait, the noodler wiggles their fingers in the hole in hopes that they find what they’re looking for. If the noodler is lucky, a monster catfish will strike and attempt to swallow their hand. The noodler then must pull the fish out onto land or onto a waiting boat without being pulled under water.

Such fish are most aggressive during the nesting season when the males will chase the females off their nests, and then take over. The males then lurk protectively over the nests, guarding them intensely while waiting for their brood to hatch.

In the states where noodling is common, catfish can weigh more than 100 pounds, making this a very dangerous sport. People in pursuit of these enormous whiskered fish have drowned trying to land them, or have lost fingers or been badly bitten when they’ve tangled with snapping turtles or snakes encountered in the murky waters by mistake.

By the way, there are goliath-sized catfish in our state, too – you just have to use a hook and line to catch them. The largest California state record blue catfish was taken by an angler from San Diego in July 2008. The fish weighed in at more than 113 lbs.!

Are Certain People Not Allowed to Hold a Hunting License?
Can a convicted felon apply and receive a hunting license? If so, can a felon use a bow and arrow to hunt? (Anonymous)

Answer: Yes to both questions. Although convicted felons may not possess firearms, the Fish and Game Code does not consider a bow and arrow to be a firearm for the purposes of hunting. Thus, as long as the person is not on parole they may possess and use archery equipment.

Use of a crossbow is another story though. Fish and Game Code regulations treat the crossbow like a firearm for the purposes of hunting and so crossbows cannot be used during the archery season for hunting. Yet, it is allowable for a felon to possess this weapon as it is not considered to be a firearm by the California Penal Code.

Can You Pool Your Crabs?
I would like to know the boat limit for taking crab other than Dungeness. I plan to have between two to four people (all with fishing licenses) on my private boat and need to know the answer to this question. Thank you very much for your response. (Jay T.)

Answer: You may not pool your crabs since boat limits apply only to finfish and not to invertebrates. With crabs, individual bag and possession limits apply. For crabs of the Cancer genus (excluding Dungeness crabs) including yellow crabs, rock crabs, red crabs and slender crabs, the limit is 35 crabs per person. Each crab must measure a minimum of four inches from edge of shell to edge of shell.

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Carrie Wilson is a marine biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game. While she cannot personally answer everyone’s questions, she will select a few to answer each week. Please contact her at

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