ATLANTA -- Catfish beware: the Georgia Legislature is looking to grab you up.
A bill that would legalize a practice called noodling -- no rods, no reels, just a hand-to-gill face off -- is working its way through the General Assembly as this year's session winds down.
The rural fishing tradition of noodling, also called handfishing, hogging and grabbling, is legal in nearly a dozen states. It involves feeling underwater for holes where the whiskered-fish lurk.
"You just reach up there, grab one and hold on," said Rep. Pete Warren, D-Augusta.
Rep. Warren has sponsored House Bill 301 that would make noodling legal in the state between March 1 and July 15. His bill also would permit using spears to snare catfish in the Savannah River because South Carolina residents are allowed to spear fish in the border river.
Rep. Warren said a constituent asked him a couple of years ago to support the spearfishing change, which would make channel and flathead catfish the only freshwater game species that can be harpooned. Under the current law, spears can be used to catch nongame fish.
Once the spearfishing bill came up, another lawmaker tacked on the noodling provision, but the legislation failed to pass it on the session's final day last year when an amendment to allow deer hunting with dogs was added in the Senate.
This time around, the spear and handfishing bill already has passed the House and is before the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee.
"This is certainly not the most important thing, but it's a part of Georgia, and the General Assembly tries to look at all aspects of what their constituents need," Rep. Warren said. "This is a low-maintenance thing (to discuss the bill), and it doesn't take a lot of time."
State wildlife officials say they are not objecting to the noodling proposal and do not think it would significantly disrupt catfish populations.
"There are very few noodlers," said Mike Spencer, assistant chief of fisheries for the state Department of Natural Resources. "Certainly, the take by other methods is going to be many times greater."
Nearly 467,000 freshwater anglers hook catfish in Georgia a year, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey. According to Fisheries Biologist Ed Bettross with the DNR's Thomson office, taking the male catfish out of a hole and away from the eggs he may be protecting is something anglers do already.
"With many fish, it's the male fish that's left to guard the eggs, so it would leave the eggs unprotected," he said. "What would happen from there is the chance of survival is decreased."
Mr. Spencer said there has not been enough interest in the hand-grabbing procedure to push for its legalization until recently. Several years ago, a documentary on the subject entitled Okie Noodling aired on Public Broadcasting, sparking interest in the obscure sport.
Mr. Bettross said several areas in McDuffie would be considered prime noodling spots.
The high banks of the upper end of tributaries that feed into Clarks Hill Lake should be good hand-fishing territory.
While most officials are unclear as to why noodling has been illegal for so long, Mr. Bettross offered a possible explanation.
"It could be as simple as it wasn't very popular, and when we were stating in law what fishing entails, no one ever came out and stated that it would entail using your hands," he said.
McDuffie Mirror Staff Writer Kristopher Wells contributed to this article.