There are few honors in the wild kingdom more dubious than being chosen as bait for some fisherman's hook. The anointed minnow, worm, cricket or frog that is not immediately diced, sliced or ground into gruel spends its final moments impaled on a hook.
It has always been the fate of bait to suffer. But even such defenseless snacks in the food chain occasionally get a shot at revenge. Here is a story of some bait that bit back.
We begin at a hospital near Baltimore where three fishermen were recently admitted, on separate occasions, complaining of stomach pains. Tests were made. Doctors scratched their heads. Finally, a microscopic probe was sent inside to investigate. The pictures it sent back showed large, bright-red worms where only intestines were supposed to be.
The fishermen didn't eat the worms. They ate the minnows that had eaten the worm eggs. For reasons that have something to do with hot days on rolling water, drinking beer and not catching fish, these guys had revived a Roaring '20s fad by swallowing their own bait.
"I guess people do some strange things when they go out fishing," said an official at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, where specialists in parasitic infections were consulted by the hospital staff. Abdominal surgery was performed on two of the fishermen. The other was treated with heavy doses of antibiotics.
Almost as surprising to the doctors as the worms was the discovery that the three minnow swallowers did not know one another. They had been in separate fishing parties. Incredibly, 15 of 20 fishermen in those groups later admitted to doctors that they had eaten minnows on those ill-fated fishing trips.
"I've never heard of that before," said a bait-store operator at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. "The only thing I've ever heard of fishermen swallowing was big fish stories."
Local bait stores report no unusual sales to anglers with lean and hungry looks, although someone did mention a bar in Chicago where live minnows are downed with the peanuts. And a 50-year-old fishing fraternity assured us that bait swallowing is not one of its rituals.
It is not unusual for anglers to get hooked by their own lures. But they rarely suffer more than a depleted bank account. In the perpetual search for more and bigger fish, a fisherman is always tempted to try new, more sophisticated bait. The business of supplying that bait, both live and artificial, has developed into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.
A walking tour of any fishing supply store will reveal what seems an endless variety of plugs, spoons, spinners and flies. Some new lure, guaranteed to drive fish wild, is advertised in outdoor magazines every month alongside such old reliables as Uncle Josh Pork Rind, preferred by discriminating fish, claim the advertisements, for more than 50 years.
"Some guys are such suckers; they'll buy every new thing that comes along," said my friend Tom, who thinks it not at all ironic that he owns a trunk-sized tackle box filled with enough fur- and feather-coated hooks to damage the mouth of every freshwater fish in America.
When it comes to catching fish, the most successful lure devised by man is no match for the natural ones of the angler fish. These deep sea creatures have evolved fleshy appendages that dangle from their foreheads conveniently close to their mouths. When fish approach to see what the jiggling is all about, they are sucked into the angler's toothy jaws. Another variety of angler sits on the sea bottom with its mouth open, displaying a narrow tongue that wiggles like a worm.
If the angler is proof of anything, it is that many fish are easy to fool. Most fishermen can tell stories of catching a monster while fishing for bluegill.
This spring, I went fishing for herring in the Potomac just offshore of Fletcher's boat house. There were dozens of us on the river, angling for fish that were jumping on the surface like they were in an aquatic show. While everyone else was using fish chunks, blood worms and artificial lures, my friend Charlie Taylor and I were using unbaited gold hooks. We caught more fish in 15 minutes than anyone else in sight.
"I've stopped trying to tell people they don't need any bait to catch herring," said Taylor. "They just don't believe me."
A young girl from Pennsylvania recently wrote a letter to Sports Afield magazine about her experiments with various bait in a local fishing tournament. The first year, she won first place using worms. The second year, she used french fries as bait and won both first place and the grand prize. "And this year," wrote Angie Eichelberger, "I won first place again and grand prize. This time I used peanut butter."
If there is a moral to all this it may be that bait is no substitute for being there. And swallowing minnows can be hazardous to your health.