By Jim Forsyth
SAN ANTONIO, Texas (Reuters) -- Texas may still have problems like a multi-billion dollar budget deficit and public schools facing major spending cuts, but its legislature has moved to make the Lone Star State safe for "noodling."
Noodling, the time-honored Southern practice of catching catfish by hand, has been illegal in Texas, and noodlers were subject to a fine of up to $500.
However, lawmakers from east Texas, the part of the state most steeped in Southern culture, have long claimed it is wrong to ban what is also called by some "Hillbilly Hand Fishing."
"I personally don't noodle, but I would defend to the death your right to do so," State Senator Bob Deuell, who represents the east Texas community of Greenville, told lawmakers, who on Thursday approved legislation to make the practice legal.
Marty Jenkins, who runs the web site "Catfish Grabbers dot Com," says noodling is an age-old Southern tradition.
"It can be a family sport. We get out there and laugh at each other, see who can get the fish out of the water, see who can get the fish without losing it," he said.
Jenkins says 17 states currently allow noodling, which he says turns fishing into a thrill sport.
"You don't know if anything's in that hole at all, you run your hands down into that hole and all of a sudden a fish comes out and bites you, and you have to try to bring it out with your hand."
The Flathead Catfish, the fish most commonly noodled, is known as one of the most vicious game fish in the United States.
"The fish will bite your hand to tell you, 'hey, get out of my hole,'" Jenkins said. "You can try to grab hold of the jaw of the fish if you're quick enough."
Most states ban the practice because they think it's cruel, Jenkins said, but he contends it's no more cruel than catching a fish with a fishhook.
State Senator Deuell said: "It's a Southern tradition, it's done in a lot of states, I've seen people do it,"
"They seem to enjoy it, and we want to afford that enjoyment to Texans who want to participate."
The bill now goes to Governor Rick Perry -- whose position on noodling is not known -- for his consideration.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)