Saturday, March 14, 2009


I spent the last week hearing cases in Cape Girardeau, about 115 miles south of St. Louis. Cape is an old Mississippi River town, founded as a colonial trading center by the French, now pretty much reduced to the service capital of southeastern Missouri: strip malls, government offices, courts, a regional university and major health care center.

One of my cases involved an unrepresented young guy of very marginal intelligence who had been out of work for years. He previously ran a cut-off saw in a sawmill, loaded ice trucks and worked as a dishwasher. He's functionally illiterate, can't count money or make change. He seemed strong and healthy to me, so I was questioning him closely to find out why he was not working. As part of this investigation I often ask about hobbies. This question frequently turns up interesting answers.

Well judge, my hobby is fishing, but you see I have to be careful not to catch any catfish.”

Now that is something. As I'm sure y'all know, the channel catfish is the official state fish of Missouri. Not being able to catch catfish in southern Missouri is surely a pretty serious problem.

What's the problem with catfish?”

Well judge, I'm allergic.”

It turns out he can't touch catfish, eat catfish or even smell catfish cooking without a very severe allergic reaction that actually sent him to the emergency room on several occasions. When he saw I was impressed, he decided to play the tune louder. He insisted he once lost a job as a dishwasher because the restaurant served catfish. His wage records showed he worked at that restaurant part time for four years. I guess it took a long while for the essence of catfish to reach the dish room.

Fishing for catfish is taken pretty seriously out here. The bigger rivers and lakes boast some truly awesome catfish. There are three types of large catfish native to Missouri waters. Channel cats are the most abundant and weigh in at 20-35 pounds. More common than you might think in slow water is the flathead cat. The biggest flathead ever caught in Missouri weighed 77 pounds. Out in the Big Muddy you can find lunker blue catfish that weigh 100 pounds or more.

When catfish get this big, good old southern boys go a little crazy. When I told the catfish allergy story to another judge, he asked me if I had ever heard of “noodling.” It turns out “noodling” involves catching massive catfish with the bare hands.

Flathead catfish live in holes or under brush in rivers and lakes. Their sedentary nature makes them the prime target for noodlers. To catch one a noodler wades and dives in the shallows looking for holes or brush along the silt bottom. When the noodler finds a likely hole, he or she swims down and wriggles a few fingers inside in hopes of attracting the attention of a big 40-50 pound flathead catfish. If all goes as planned, the catfish will swim forward and latch onto the fisherman's gloved hand, usually as a defensive maneuver in order to try to escape the hole. Once the fish grabs a hand all the noodler has to do is drag the animal out of the water without drowning first.

Hand fishing for catfish like this is illegal in most states, but not Missouri. Last June Missouri opened its first season of legal hand-fishing, due to persistent lobbying by a group called “Noodlers Anonymous.” Legalization seems not likely to make much difference. The legal hand fishing is limited to only three rivers. There are 2000 estimated noodlers in Missouri, but only 21 applied for the new $7 hand-fishing permit.

Anyone who wants to learn even more about noodling should definitely check out this link to YouTube:

Enough about the fine art of sport fishing in Missouri.

I have had several requests lately for copies of earlier blog entries to share with friends. I don't mind anyone forwarding what I send you. However, given the number of entries accumulated so far it seems like a good idea to post them all on the internet where anyone can access whatever entries strike their interest. Starting today you and your friends are invited to view my new blog site “St. Louis Sojourn.” To take a look go to Please note there is no “www” in this address. I still intend to email each blog entry weekly as always. I've already posted all prior entries the site and will continue to do so weekly. Entires posted to the internet will probably have fewer pictures, but the same text. As always, your comments are appreciated.

1 comment:

  1. While in Cape Girardeau did you make a pilgrimage to the boyhood home of Rush Limbaugh the way people visit Graceland in Memphis?