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Finding fish bait in nature
Now and Then
Dr  Roger Branch March WEB
Dr. Roger Branch Sr.

For South Georgia “plain folks,” fishing with rods and reels using artificial lures is a relatively recent development. Of course, they fished, as had Native Americans before them, as much for food as for fun. However, for generations they relied on nature’s bounty for bait and even fishing poles at times.

The choice of baits depended in part upon the type of fishing being done. While all used hooks and lines, there were differences. “Pole and line,” meaning a cane pole with line of varying length with hook, lead sinker and perhaps a float, was the most widely used method.

Trot-lines, long cords with short, hooked lines attached at intervals, are used in larger streams primarily to catch catfish. Tied at the water line to a tree or sturdy limb at the river bank, they are stretched into the stream and weighted to keep them in place. Obviously, a boat is necessary.

Bush hooks and set hooks are also used for “cat fishing.” The equipment is the same, a strong line, often braided cotton, about two feet long with hook and sinker. Both are used mainly in smaller rivers and creeks. From boats, bush hooks are tied to tree branches near the water, then baited and left to be checked for results later. Set hooks are tools of “bank” fishermen who attach their lines to poles cut nearby. After hooks are baited, lines are set in “fishy looking” places and the sharpened butts of the poles are sunk into the stream bank.

Pole and line fishing actually varies, depending upon species of fish and stream characteristics. Therefore, the bait of the day also varies. But, nature usually provides.

The soil offers several types of worms, the universal fish bait. For years, I pitch-forked up “slop worms” from moist places around animal barns on the farm until a tractor replaced mules and the barns were removed. My woodland wise father dug up “meadow worms” living around clumps of grass in wet spots. Night crawlers (aka eel worms) can be found in moist, almost muddy, soil. The familiar “earth worms” are plentiful but hard to get because they burrow deep into the earth, even into clay. Some people reported success in driving a metal stake into the earth, vibrating it vigorously with a rough board, forcing worms out of their holes to escape. By the time I heard about this, red wigglers were available in local bait shops.

Various insects are the most effective baits for bream and perch, especially the hard-fighting and delectable redbreast. July flies (katydids) top the list, but are not easy to find, present for a short time in summer and never in large numbers.

Grasshoppers, preferably green ones for visibility to fish, are also effective and plentiful. Daddy knew a place to catch tan-colored “camel-back crickets,” so named for their humped shape and distinguished by a green or brown streak down the back and pincers at the mouth. That specific bit of habitat no longer exists, but I hope there are some somewhere.

We carried collected insects in bait gourds, made from quart-sized gourds with ventilation holes and the top of the stem removed and fitted with a cork to insert and remove bait. A strong cord to loop around the neck made for convenient carrying.

Bait gourds work for all sorts of living lures. A favorite for many anglers is the catalpa (catalba, torber) worm, which devours the leaves of the catalpa tree, usually in great numbers. All sorts of fish eat them. Their tough hides keep them on the hook against the efforts of bait-stealing small fish, a prized trait for trot-line fishermen. Once, avid anglers planted catalpa trees and protected them against birds while worms grew to bait size. My maternal grandfather guarded his with a long double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun, often with “deadly force.” Oak worms, their name of obvious origin, are great bait, but few are available due to deforestation and no one now knows how to find them. I relied on my father, the last such enlightened woodsman, for that.

Other larvae are good bait: grub worms found in decaying hardwood, “sawyers” found under the bark of felled pines, meal worms grown by the user, wasp and hornet nestlings. The last named require the use of a newspaper torch attached to a long handle to burn off the wings of adult defenders or fleetness of foot in case of failure.

Water provides a variety of baits. Redfin pike and warmouth perch like crawfish. My father and his father used small fish, preferably the shiny, little “redeye,” to catch jackfish (chain pickerel). Speckled perch (crappie) prefer minnows. Small frogs have been used on trot-lines and bush hooks.

“Cut bait” comes from water critters. Daddy used strips from the belly or tail section of a pike to “troll” for other pike. Hunks of eel, salamander and trash fish, like mud fish, are tasty morsels to catfish and can serve as bait on trot-lines, bush hooks and set hooks. Warning — pieces of eels and salamanders are slimier to the touch than night crawlers. However, they will “catch fish.” So, heat up the frying pan.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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