Known variously as noodling or hogging, handfishing has long been a misdemeanor punishable by fines, because state officials fear it depletes breeding-age catfish. It can also be dangerous: Noodlers hold their breath for long periods under water and sometimes come up with fistfuls of agitated snakes or snapping turtles instead of fish. That does not discourage enthusiasts, who insist there is great sportsmanship in fishing with your bare hands. So after years of urging by noodlers, and lopsided legislative support for easing up on handfishers, the Missouri Conservation Commission has approved an experimental handfishing season next summer. Forms of handfishing are already legal in 11 states, including neighboring Oklahoma, Arkansas and Illinois. "It's a start," John Smith, deputy director of the Conservation Department, said Tuesday. "We are moving forward in good faith to answer the legitimate biological concerns that we have, and balance that with the requests for making this process legal." Missouri's biological concerns are that handfishers, who go for the biggest fish they can wrestle from riverbanks or hollow logs, will take too many sexually mature fish from their underwater nests. The commission agreed to a June 1-July 15 season, during which handfishers who have bought a $7 permit can use only their bare hands and feet to catch a daily total of five catfish. Fish under 22 inches long must be thrown back. Handfishing will be legal only along specified stretches of the Fabius, St. Francis and Mississippi rivers. So secretive are handfishers that they have formed a club called Noodlers Anonymous. A University of Missouri-Columbia professor who got the group's cooperation in surveying its members found that most are men, average age about 40, living in rural areas.