Catfish noodling

Channel catfish are only one of the catfish species noodlers are expected to target. The others, flathead and blue catfish, grow even larger than channel cats. West Virginia’s first-ever noodling season opens Friday and will end on Aug. 31.

A brand-new fishing season makes its debut Friday in West Virginia.

For the first time ever, people in the Mountain State will be allowed to noodle for catfish. Noodling, also known as hand-fishing, grabbling and tickling, has long been legal in the Midwest and Deep South, but has always been illegal in West Virginia.

That changed in May, when members of the state Natural Resources Commission voted to create a noodling season with a fixed opening date of June 15 and a fixed closing date of Aug. 31.

Noodlers catch catfish by feeling around in underwater openings until they touch a catfish. They then grab the fish by the mouth or gills and yank it out. The practice has acquired a cult following among daredevils who enjoy the adrenaline rush of wrestling with fish that can weigh up to 70 pounds.

The Mountain State noodling season coincides with a time of the year when water levels are relatively low and cavities holding catfish are easier to reach. The summertime season also ensures that noodlers, who often wade in neck-deep to reach prime spots, won’t succumb to hypothermia because the water is too cold.

Hand-fishing is restricted to daylight hours only, for two reasons: One, fumbling around in the water at night can be hazardous; and two, law enforcement officers can more readily police the activity.

Noodlers can’t use bait or fish attractors to entice catfish out of their holes. They also can’t use gaffs or spears to latch onto or kill their quarry.

Diving underwater to noodle is allowed, but the use of snorkels, SCUBA gear or any other artificial breathing apparatus is not.

When noodling, participants are allowed to feel for fish only in naturally occurring cavities and naturally occurring habitat. Grabbing fish out of artificial cavities or catfish nesting boxes is forbidden. It’s also illegal for participants to create artificial cavities or nest boxes for future use.

Hand-fishing is allowed only on the state’s rivers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes, Stonecoal Lake, Hawks Nest Lake, Mount Storm Lake and Cheat Lake. Small state-managed impoundments are off-limits because DNR officials are working to increase catfish populations there.

The daily creel limit for noodling is four fish, which also counts as part of a hook-and-line angler’s daily limit. The limit of four is an aggregate total that can include any or all of the state’s three major catfish species — channel cats, flathead cats and blue cats.

Only two fish in any daily limit of four can be blue cats, and only one fish may measure more than 35 inches in length. If the body of water being fished has more restrictive limits, those will be in effect.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1231, or follow @GazMailOutdoors on Twitter.

Outdoors Reporter