Wednesday, June 04, 2008
Collecting Fish Bait Is A Thing Of The Past
My, how times have changed. Fifty-five years ago, when my twin brother George and I needed nightcrawlers, we’d head for the Clio High School football field. Once the sun went down, the nightcrawlers would come out, especially on a night with warm, drizzling rain.
We would pick crawlers two or three nights each week to satisfy our bait needs. My flashlight had red cellophane across the lens, and it didn’t scare the big worms as did a bright, white light shining on them.
We picked the football field until Alice Boyce, one of Clio’s high school teachers at the time, spotted red lights dotting the football field. Clio’s finest, our city police, arrive to catch two nefarious little kids picking crawlers. They shagged us out of there, but we’d sneak back the next night. We weren’t hurting a thing.
Come winter, and we needed corn borers for ice fishing, dawn would find us in a patch of field corn with a sharp knife. We would cut the stalks length-wise, remove the white grubs, and within an hour have enough corn borers to last for two days of nonstop bluegill fishing.
If we needed wigglers, we use a length of seine, and one person would wade upstream, kick around in a muck bed, and the other would stand downstream with the net and pick out the large mayfly nymphs. Three people worked even better because we could use two kickers, and the netter would attach one end of the net to a pole, anchor it to bottom and stretch the net tight.
We soon learned that some muck beds were better than others. Some just held more and bigger wigglers. There may have been some rules about collecting leeches, minnows and suckers, but we didn’t know about it. We were poor kids gathering fish bait for our personal use.
We collected grasshoppers with a tennis racquet. We’d walk through a weed field, and when a grasshopper would jump into the air, one swipe would be taken with the racquet. We’d pick them up, and a brown fluid would come out of the ‘hopper, and we always called it tobacco juice. A can with a hinged lid, and a small piece of nylon would work well. The hopper would get its feet tangled in the nylon material, and that made grabbing one for the hook much easier.
We caught black crickets for bluegills under piles of old boards, and found there was nothing any better for deep-water roach (bull bluegills). These fish would hit a cricket hooked through the body, and we’d either cast way out or drift with the wind while a small weight allowed the cricket to tumble along bottom in deeper water. Summer bluegills—the bigger ones—were often caught in 25 to 30 feet of water, and drifting downwind allowed us to cover more water and catch more big fish.
Fifty to 55 years ago is a long time in the past. Money was tight and hard to come by in those days, and if we wanted to go fishing, we went out and caught our own live bait. We even caught our own leeches, and found they produced well when hooked to a jig or live-bait rig, and trolled along bottom on a sinker, leader hook rig similar to the now-popular Lindy rig.
Dennis “Curly” Buchner owns Buc’s Bait in Interlochen. He is the largest live-bait dealer in the state, and both of us began our weblogs at the same time. He says that most of the kids of his era collected their own bait even though his father, Earl, started the live-bait business many years ago.
“The average person doesn’t have time to collect bait now,” Buchner said. “Most of our nightcrawlers now come from huge farms in Ontario, and few people can compete with the quality and size of their crawlers. Ontario pretty much has the locks on the nightcrawler business.”
He said that most of his leeches come from northern Minnesota, and his wax worms come from Indiana. Few people have worm farms now like they did 35-40 years ago. Wiggler diggers are the tough ones, he says, noting that they often dig for wigglers at various times of the year although there is a summer moratorium on digging for mayfly larvae.
Gone are the days of prowling the neighborhood and the football field for nightcrawlers, and much of the corn now is resistant to corn borers. Leeches and wigglers must be dug, and crawlers are imported from Ontario for Michigan’s bait fishermen.
Many minnows are purchased, and even live suckers for winter tip-up fishing, now come from a wholesaler. It’s men like Buchner, who covers Michigan from Sanford Lake north to the Mackinac Bridge, and the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula, who are probably the last of their breed.
They keep the bait containers filled at local tackle shops, and their hours are long and tiring, but in the end, if you hook a minnie or a nightcrawler to your hook this summer, chances are good that Curly Buchner stocked the live bait at the bait shop near you.
It’s a long step from catching your own bait. I know I don’t miss the sore back that always accompanied walking hunched over while trying to pick nightcrawlers before Alice Boyce could call the police on us.