You never know what will trigger a childhood lesson to spring to mind, or when. In this episode of Wildlife Matters, the Masked Biologist reflects on childhood memories of collecting fish bait with his uncle.
When my age was in the single digits, I was fortunate to have a living arrangement that had several relatives living in a row. Our family lived in my great-grandparents’ house. Next to us was my grandparent’s floral, nursery, and truck farm. Next to them lived my grandpa’s two siblings and their spouses. We had seemingly free run across all of their properties, from the county highway all the way down to the river. In all combined, there was everything a kid could possibly want. There were fresh fruits and vegetables you could pick and eat any time you wanted. Horses in a pasture waited to have their long noses scratched as they munched on your watermelon rinds. A backyard swimming pool we could use if we promised not to pee in it. An artesian spring with a tin cup hanging on a branch nearby where you could drink all the clear cold water you wanted. Finally, there were a couple of fishing options—the lazy, muddy Fox River and Uncle Kenny’s pond.
My brothers and I would always take any opportunity to fish that presented itself, usually at the river. Sadly, catfish and bullheads were about all we seemed to catch—fun to fight, misery to unhook and clean. On rare occasions, we would get Uncle Kenny’s permission to fish his pond, which was stocked with a special kind of fish that frankly I can’t even describe now some forty years later. I remember on one occasion gaining his permission, and him telling us to go to the manure pile to get our bait. Normally we would go to the fields and claw at the furrows for thick glossy nightcrawlers, but it seemed best to do what Uncle Kenny said. He stuck his hand into the horse manure, pulled it apart and showed me the small red wigglers hiding inside. I admit I was not anxious to extract worms from a towering pile of horse apples, but I grabbed a rusty soup can and started digging. I don’t remember much about fishing the pond, but the experience of collecting the worms really stuck with me.
Uncle Kenny also had a cottage on a lake outside of Shawano. On golden summer days we would take a family trip to visit him there through the years. He always knew where we could scratch in the leaves and dirt to find a few leaf worms. We would sit on his dock and catch bluegills hand over fist, or paddle the canoe around and catch bass in the weeds. If we ran out of worms, he showed us how to use mini marshmallows, cut up hotdogs, even popcorn to catch more fish. We learned that, if we had fish that died on the stringer, or from a gut hook, we could use their eyes or spawn sacks as bait to catch more fish. At the end, he would help us clean the fish with a smile—he even showed me how to clean a northern pike with only a few bones staying in the meat.
I think about these times often, every time I buy bait from a store. Sure, sometimes I raid a friend’s compost pile, and I suppose another friend would be happy to let me claw through his pile of horse apples, but it seems buying worms for bait has become the convention. I have even purchased worms from vending machines in some places! Maybe I have gotten soft, and I should catch some wild-grown worms rather than using the fat, sluggish nightcrawlers stored in a plastic tub in the fridge. I don’t know that I could ever convince my kids to try to extract worms from the ground for fishing, much less from a manure pile. They don’t have the benefit of a Great Uncle Kenny to help them overcome their apprehension by focusing on the prize, the end goal. I have my first great nephew now; I hope someday I can influence his life for the better, give him a story to carry with him for a lifetime, like Uncle Kenny did for me.
Striving to make new things familiar and familiar things new, this is the Masked Biologist coming to you from the heart of Wisconsin’s great Northwoods.