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Noodling — pulling a catfish from the water by hand — is now legal in Louisiana

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now to Louisiana, where some people like to fish by sticking their arms into murky water, feeling around for catfish and grabbing one by the mouth. It's called noodling, and a new law legalizing it goes into effect today. Kezia Setyawan of member station WWNO in New Orleans takes us to a lake to learn how it's done.

KEZIA SETYAWAN, BYLINE: On a scorching July day on Louisiana's Caney Lake, two friends are waist deep in the shallow water, another on a small motorboat. One of them, Eli Spangler, wears snorkeling goggles. He dives under and sticks his hand in an old tire, grabbing a blue catfish with his bare hands.

ELI SPANGLER: Almost. I almost had it, bro.

SETYAWAN: No catch this time. One of his buddies, John Robert Blake, says it's all about technique.

JOHN ROBERT BLAKE: You put one finger behind his gill, and that'll open his mouth up. And then just lock your fingers like this. And then when you get them locked, do the same thing to the other side, and he ain't going nowhere.

SETYAWAN: Eli catches his breath, secures the goggles on his face, and dives back in the water. John Robert has the net ready. His brother, Rett, holds the boat to make sure it doesn't float off too far away.

SPANGLER: That's what I'm talking about, baby.

SETYAWAN: This is the first time Eli has caught a catfish with his bare hands. Usually he just acts as support.

SPANGLER: We're always doing this together. I just have never grabbed one before.

SETYAWAN: A couple of years ago, these guys taught another friend how to noodle. He then taught his dad, who happened to be a state representative, Jack McFarland.

JACK MCFARLAND: And I think part of it initially was just that, man, I can't let my son show me up. I got to do this.

SETYAWAN: At the time, none of that was legal. So this year, McFarland introduced a bill to change that.

MCFARLAND: So let's just go ahead and define it as legal, and everyone can enjoy the sport.

SETYAWAN: That makes Louisiana the 17th state to legalize noodling. Most are in the south. Back at Caney Lake, Eli Spangler says that they're happy McFarland pushed for its legalization.

SPANGLER: I'm sure that he just felt like it was the right thing to do.

SETYAWAN: They've been noodling for over five years now, sinking their own plywood boxes and even a bathtub to encourage catfish to spawn. Eli is pretty excited he finally caught one today.

SPANGLER: But when I went in there that first time today and just reached my arm in there and came up with the catfish, it was just like - it was like it all paid off. It was like everything that I've thought it was going to be, it was.

SETYAWAN: The Blake brothers say once you try it out, you'll be hooked.

BLAKE: If you had never done it before, you need to get in with some people and do it. You need to go, because it is an experience of a lifetime. It's fun. You'll want to do it twice if you do it once. I guarantee.

RETT BLAKE: It's addicting. I would say it's addicting. Of course, we are a little crazy. We like to do crazy things.

SETYAWAN: John Roberts says it's been a good haul today at Caney Lake this late into the season, with a total of four catfish clocking in at almost 26 pounds, better than previous outings.

BLAKE: The last two times I've been, I ain't caught a fish. So we're already doing two times better than what I've been doing.

SETYAWAN: And there's a payoff - fried catfish tonight.

SPANGLER: Yeah. We'll eat it.

SETYAWAN: While now it's the end of the season, with noodling now legal in the state, Rett, John Robert and Eli can't wait for next year. For NPR News, I'm Kezia Setyawan in Chatham, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kezia Setyawan