Fishing as a Contact Sport

In the wild, wild Midwest, people who call themselves "noodlers" are catching massive catfish with their bare hands, using their own fingers and toes as bait.

A seasoned "noodler" from Missouri, Howard Ramsey, proudly displays his scarred arms and digits, called "river rash" by insiders.

"Yep, that's right, " he beams, "You gotta bleed."

Noodling, which began with Native Americans, is the art of catching catfish with your bare hands. People like Howard Ramsey have done it for years without rod, hook or bait. Instead, they quietly grope the dark undersides of rocks or stumps in riverbanks, where catfish nest, until they feel the sandpaper-like teeth of catfish clamp down on their hands.

Then, the noodler grips the jaws and triumphantly yanks the writhing fish to the surface. Ideally, that is.

Sometimes, noodlers poking around the mossy, underwater crevices are also vulnerable to the painful bites of snapping turtles, snakes and beavers that may hole up in abandoned catfish nests.

Noodling old-timer Ramsey quipped to ABC News' John Berman, "Webster's [dictionary] describes a noodle as 'a crazy person.' Just about anybody you talk to thinks you got to be crazy to do this."

The idea of noodling may be laughable, but hand fishing enthusiasts say it's usually a fair fight. Fish can weigh up to 100 pounds, and many say what they like most about the sport is meeting the fish on its own turf and terms.

Banned since 1919 for disturbing the natural food chain, noodling came back to Missouri two years ago after Ramsey and the fishing fanatics of "Noodlers Anonymous" fought for the right to hand fish on a trial basis for five years. During a six-week annual season, noodlers could nab up to five fish per day in three of the state's rivers.

Their hook-and-line counterparts are allowed a daily catch of 20 fish, 365 days a year.

But this summer, right on the cusp of the third legal noodling season, the Missouri Department of Conservation banned hand fishing once again. The Department said 646 catfish had been caught even before the noodling season began, and fisheries division chief Steve Eder reported that scientists had found higher-than-expected mortality rates among the state's catfish.

Noodling is legal in at least thirteen Midwestern and Southeastern states, including Louisiana, Mississippi and, recently, Georgia. The greatest homage to the sport, however, takes place in Nigeria at the Argungu Festival, where 10,000 fishermen jump into opaque, coffee-colored streams to wrestle giant freshwater perch.

Though Missourian noodlers claim they are being singled out, a Department of Conservation FAQ sheet explains that hand fishing targets the largest of the breeding fish, as well as their nests. Snatching a parent may leave thousands of catfish eggs vulnerable to predators.

In response, desperate noodlers have offered to cut down their bounty to just five catfish per season, significantly reduced from their previous quota of five per day -- but the Missouri Department of Conservation just isn't biting.

Noodlers have vowed to take their case to the state legislature.

ABC News' Jung H. Song and John Berman contributed to this report.