How to Tell if Your Fishing Partner is a Closet Bait Fisherman

My addiction to bait fishing traces back to the day they found Mr. Stanley stone-cold dead along the bank of the Umatilla River. The start to his day was innocent enough. I greeted him at the front doorstep with an order of two dozen red wrigglers. We argued briefly when he offered up a quarter, but only because I thought the deal was a quarter per dozen. From my perspective, the fact that his ticker gave out barely mitigated for the fact I had been wronged. So much for repeat business.

That day was a hint that I had been raised on the wrong side of the crick. As further evidence of a dark side to my angling persona, I drifted worms under root wads and through lazy holes of spring-fed creeks that emerged from the Blue Mountain foothills. My arsenal was expanded to include Band-aid boxes stuffed with grasshoppers and Pautzke’s Balls O’ Fire salmon eggs (“soft but satisfying”) that I stored in my cheek like a baseball player holds his chew. It was those early experiences with bait that taught me how to read the water and bring trout to the creel.

During my teen years, I plied streams and lakes with nightcrawlers and worms, switching to flies only if I thought I would catch my limit too quickly. Hunting for nightcrawlers the night before opening day of trout season became an annual ritual. I crawled on my hands and knees in the dark looking for subtle movement or the reflection of moonlight on their slime layer. Then, there was the grab. I hung on with enough tension so they couldn’t slip out of my grasp, pulling gently yet surely so as to not break them in half. Bait-hunting adventures taught me about patience, stealth, and habitat associations, skills equally applicable to fishing.

These poignant memories are the main reason why I don’t support a notion of bait fishing being the lowest form of angling. Simply stated, it’s not fair that bait is out of vogue when it can provide a good experience. Black lights, paisley shirts and water pipes also come to mind in this regard.

Another reason I haven’t given up fishing with bait is the overwhelming logic against artificial lure-only rules. First and foremost, using bait is natural. Second, catching fish with bait is not really cheating unless it is against sport fishing regulations. It’s also difficult to buy the notion that bait fishing ain’t ethical. It’s a well-known fact that even the best lawyers struggle to articulate the difference between what is legal and what is ethical. The real issue should be about harvest, not that jurisprudence should result in angling impotence. After all, isn’t one purpose of fishing to catch fish?

Whether having to do with dirty fingernails or different gear, bait fishermen are routinely segregated on western waterways. How else can you explain “artificial lure only” locales? I’m surprised that there has been no counter movement towards bait fishing-only events. Participants could be enclosed like smokers at an airport. This would provide a place where they could destroy the resource and offend each other in a carefully controlled manner.

Okay. Maybe that example was a little over-the-top. However, it’s not far from what many anglers believe, i.e., that there is no lower life form than one who puts bait on a hook. Could it be that these purists have their stocking foot waders on a little too tight? Why is there such a tendency to be fur- and feather-centric about what we put it front of fish? I’m thinking that color-coordinated outfits from Orvis are merely a guise, a cover for past sins.

Before proceeding to rat out closet bait fishermen, I must confess that I don’t feel good about my addiction. Some days the truth weighs so heavy on my conscience I wish I had embraced organized religion, paid penance and moved on. So, rather than spend the rest of my life confused about the hold that bait fishing had on me, I searched for solace in the classic literature. The rationale was to understand myself better in order to help others. Anything to keep from spending another Saturday afternoon at the local chapter of Bait-Fishers Anonymous.

A sojourn to the city library revealed that the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson had extended the use of bait in artful prose: “Beauty without grace is the hook without the bait.” Admittedly, I read the passage three times and still could not figure out what the heck it meant.

Digging deeper into piscatorial archives, I found that bait fishing was firmly embedded in other leather-bound books. For example, William Shakespeare wrote “Bait the hook well, this fish will bite.” Izaak Walton, the father of fly fishing, thought so much of bait that he devoted several pages in The Compleat Angler describing “many sorts” of bait, as well as their care and specific use for catching trout and minnows. Henry David Thoreau wrote of taking eels “with a mess of worms strung on a thread.” Even Papa Hemingway used a grasshopper or two in his day.

Although this search provided a huge stamp of approval for bait fishing, I cannot reinforce enough that we must have standards. If not, the sport of angling could deteriorate into a reckless quest for fame like so many professional athletes on steroids. Consequently, and given the tremendous pressure on performance, I have developed a series of tests to determine if your fly fishing buddy has a weakness for bait. Trust me on this topic. It takes a criminal to catch a criminal.

The clues are not intuitive. For instance, it is not possible to ascertain if your buddy is a bait fisherman by the number of horses contained under the hood of his extended cab pickup truck, the span of his significant other’s backside, or the number of Styrofoam containers in a garage refrigerator. Instead, look for a half-empty box of Borax on a workbench, the pinkish stain of Pro-Cure on a cork rod handle, or a jar of Smelly Jelly in the interior pocket of a fishing vest. Maybe you saw your pal digging for garden hackles when you jogged by one evening and he responded: “Just re-charging the compost pile.“

Give me a break, Who is fooling who? I suppose he also signed up for an Entomology class at the local junior college. Just remember that behind every egg-sucking leech or glowbug is a fly tier who knows something about the advantage of bait.

In the absence of physical clues, look for behavioral ones. For instance, your fishing buddy might sit stoic while others talk down bait-loving fishes such as catfish and sturgeon. You might note he is overly rude to bait casters when sharing the water (i.e., exhibits the reformed “baiter” syndrome). Do his eyes light up like magic when you share what a few drops of shrimp oil could do to a prawn fly? Or, is it that he bounces a bead-head nymph on the stream bottom under a strike indicator, a fancy name for what everyone knows is really a BOBBER. And we all know why bobbers were invented. Ah, revenge of the red-neck.

A clincher is if you catch your buddy standing in the middle of a stream on a hot summer day when those dang trout refuse to rise, carefully extracting caddis fly larvae from their pebbly case, and placing them in a plastic vial. When challenged he will almost always answer that he was only studying their stage of development.

Sure, and you can drink all the Bud Light you want and you won’t feel a thing. The truth is that your buddy was serious about threading the juicy, worm-like, high-calorie morsel halfway down the shank of a #12 Adams to see if hungry trout were sulking in the vicinity. Whether he is a nervous backslider or a first-time user, you may never be able to prove. The bottom line is that bait fishing is one habit that is hard to break. If you don’t believe it, just ask me.