MU professor Mary Grigsby writes about noodlers in Missouri

The professor's new book sheds light on the illegal act of hand fishing in Missouri.

Mary Grigsby, MU associate professor and chairwoman of Rural Sociology, recently published a book called “Noodlers in Missouri.”

The book is about noodling - also known as hand fishing for catfish - and some of the underlying culture and nuances of this illegal practice.

Noodling is popular across the Midwest. It was briefly legalized in Missouri in 2005 before becoming illegal again in 2006. Grigsby was caught in the middle of the entire storm and started covering noodling in 2005 for one of the classes she was teaching.

“The question I had started with was, ‘Why had people persisted in doing this from 1919 to 2005 when it was illegal?’” Grigsby said. “'Why do they keep going in a river, going under water, using their hand as a lure to get chomped and bleed? What would make someone really want to do this, even though it is illegal?' I think my book answered that.”

In her research, Grigsby found the public had a false image of the noodlers.

‘They had a way of interacting with the children that was unlike the media portrayals that I had seen,” Grigsby said. “It was different. It wasn’t hyper-masculine because it was the family time.”

Grigsby was fortunate to have been at the South Fabius River in 2005 on a noodling trip for her class. She made connections with a few noodlers who were essential to the completion of her book.

She did not anticipate noodling would become illegal one year into testing how it affected the catfish population. Noodlers in Missouri are a hard group to access now that it has been made illegal.

“You have to trust them not to share that you are noodling,” Grigsby said. “They can’t be big mouths. They have to identify with the group and not talk around town about it. Outsiders are only let in if they are trusted by someone in the group that is trusted.”

Working as a professor at MU made writing the book a challenge for Grigsby. She had to balance time working on her book and teaching.

“I’ve been known to listen to tapes of my interviews in the evening, during my walks,” Grigsby said. “I do it just to get familiar with it. Sometimes I even listen to them two or three times. I try to fit in working on it whenever I have an available block of time.”

While it was a bit of a balancing act, Grigsby ended up shedding some light on an unknown world in Missouri. Her book hit the stands this past March, and she is currently in the process of working on a fourth book.

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