Longtime readers of this column know I'm not much on new technology -- I believe in doing things the old-fashioned way, even when it's wrong. But a breakthrough on the fishing front this summer made even this crusty curmudgeon take notice.
We're talking about artificial bloodworms, a product called Fish Bites, to be precise. They look like little strips of pink bubble gum and are said to contain enzymes that attract fish the way the genuine article does.
Anybody who comes up with a sanitary replacement for the gruesome bloodworm deserves at least a trial run. Bloodworms are exasperating baits. They cost a fortune, up to $10 a dozen for good ones. They are shockingly short-lived and hard to work with. They'll nip you if you're not careful. They must be kept cool, they squirm like crazy when you cut them and stink up the refrigerator if kept too long.
Bloodworms live on the mud flats of coastal Maine, where they are dug by long-suffering workmen. They come packed in sweet-smelling New England seaweed. They get the name because they bleed profusely when cut in small bits to thread onto hooks. The blood, in the view of most anglers, is what makes them so effective as they draw in hungry Norfolk spot, white perch, croakers and rockfish from far and wide when dropped to the bottom and held there on a moving tide.
Bloodworms for ages have been the favored bait of bottom-fishermen in the Chesapeake, tidal Potomac and other brackish waters of the mid-Atlantic. They're so valuable, they are shipped south by air freight daily during the high summer months, to be gobbled up by eager anglers from Fletcher's Boathouse in the District to Rudee Inlet in Virginia Beach.
Now the mighty engine of American commerce has developed an alternative. The buzz around the Chesapeake this summer is all about Fish Bites, which some people say work just as well as bloodworms on this year's abundant population of white perch. Well, there's one way to find out, isn't there?
Gene Miller and I stopped in last week at Angler's Sport Center on Route 50 near the Bay Bridge, where Fish Bites come in five flavors and four shapes -- crab, shrimp, clam, squid and bloodworm in strips, chunks, worms or sheets.
Angler's owner, Charlie Ebersberger, said the big seller is pink bloodworms in the bag o' worms packet, so we grabbed a pack for $7.99 and pointed the old Boston Whaler toward Hackett's Bar, just below the Bay Bridge on the Western Shore.
Hackett's is an old oyster shoal that runs a mile out into the Chesapeake from the mouth of Whitehall Bay. The water depth goes from 30 feet or so to seven atop the shoal. The change in depth speeds the water flow when a current is running. The combination of changing depth, changing speed of current and hard, oyster-shell bottom always has attracted bottom-feeding fish.
We were buoyed to see the Becky D at Hackett's. Capt. Ed Darwin is dean of charter skippers in the mid-Bay and if he's anchored up, you can be pretty sure fish are close by. We pulled alongside. "Any perch?"
"Plenty of perch here," said Ed, "and big ones -- the finest kind. You can take our spot, we're just getting ready to go in."
I asked what he thought of Fish Bites. Before Ed could respond, his longtime first mate, George diPaula, chimed in with his opinion. "They're better than bloodworms," he said. But then, he would. He's the guy who has to cut them up. Darwin himself said the artificial stuff works, but he still prefers bloodworms and usually uses a piece of each on his double-hooked bottom rigs -- one hook baited with bloodworm, the other with Fish Bites.
We set up to drift with the outgoing tide alongside the Becky D, drew our fake worms out of the plastic bag and cut them into half-inch bits without enduring any protests from the worms or guilt about pain inflicted. Nor did it take long before we were catching nice white perch and jumbo Norfolk spot, sometimes two at a time.
We were in 24 feet of water not far from the green, unlighted buoy that marks the end of Hackett's. It's one of Darwin's favorite spots and I took some bearings on shore marks to make sure I could find it again. The fishing was good, but not spectacular, and I couldn't help thinking that real bloodworms would have worked better.
We put a dozen nice perch and spot in the cooler for supper, then headed for the Bay Bridge, where it was more of the same: fishing alongside the concrete bridge pilings on the Western Shore -- steady action with keeper-sized white perch of 10 to 12 inches, but nothing extraordinary. We never got a tap, for example, from small rockfish, which usually find bloodworms irresistible.
The Fish Bites were less durable than I expected. The strips are a pink, rubbery substance attached to a thin strip of cheesecloth. The pink stuff turns blood red in the water but gets gooey after awhile, and you generally can only catch two or three fish before the bait must be changed. If I were going to fish any length of time, I'd get at least two $8 packs.
Of the five flavors of Fish Bites, Ebersberger said bloodworm is by far the most popular. Flounder fishermen are buying squid flavor, he said, and some croaker fishermen use squid flavor as well. The stuff is so new, no one knows what to do with some of the other flavors.
With enough filleting-size fish in the cooler for a fish fry, Gene and I headed home early and left the perch and spot biting. Best of all, we had a few strips of Fish Bites left, which I tucked back in the bag and stuck in the tackle box for future outings. You sure couldn't do that with bloodworms. Imagine the stench!