KEVIN TATE: Catalpa worm orchard not what Grandmother had in mind

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

Except for crappie in the spring, fishing with the Old Men meant catfish exclusively, and that meant live bait, which generally meant a lot of tedious work, at least until Grandaddy redesigned his gathering method on the Henry Ford model.
There are several species of live bait available that appeal to catfish, and the Old Men and I tried them all, though I regret to say the cicada never crossed our hooks.
Minnows work well enough, but baiting trotlines with them on a semi-commercial basis gets expensive, either from the purchase of the minnows or the maintenance of the aeration gear required to keep them alive in a cooler or both. Red worms and nightcrawlers do fine for pole fishing but, in a mass-production setting, they don’t stay on the hook well enough. The ultimate bait for trotlines in the opinion of the Old Men, then, were catalpa worms, their pronunciation of which owed nothing at all to the spelling of the word.
From the onset of my training period, which began in my single-digit ages when the Old Men retired to fish full time, the acquisition of catalpa worms, which are actually caterpillars, first involved scouting to locate trees containing hatches ready to “pick,” as we called it. The catalpa sphinx moth lays its eggs only on catalpa trees. The eggs hatch two to four weeks later and the hatchlings begin to eat the leaves of the tree as they grow.
Scouting involves finding a freshly-gnawed tree whose inhabitants have grown to bait size but have not yet left to burrow into the ground and move on toward becoming moths themselves.
According to Wikipedia, a 10-year-old catalpa tree will stand 20 feet tall, and I know from experience they get considerably taller than that. Extracting caterpillars from beneath the leaves of these trees often involved a step ladder in the bed of a pickup and a long cane pole, thumping the bait down one hook’s-worth at a time. As unsafe as this sounds, it’s even more boring, even to Old Men with nothing else to do.
Ever the innovator then, Grandaddy hatched a plan.
Collecting seeds and small catalpa tree saplings from the Town Creek bottom and around the community of Brewer, he and my dad set out an orchard some 60 trees strong. They seeded the new trees with eggs by finding leaves containing egg clutches on other established trees and transplanting these to their new home, limb, leaves and all. It turns out catalpa trees respond just fine to annual pruning, a practice that still keeps these trees harvestable by someone standing on the ground bending limbs down one at a time today.
The catalpa wood is similar to crepe myrtle and the trees grow at least as quickly. The pruned limbs are certainly just as heavy. Looking at one of our early post-pruning limb piles and considering the prime yard spot that had been chosen for the grove, Grandmother asked why they hadn’t just planted fruit trees instead.
“Catfish won’t bite an apple,” Grandaddy told her. And as far as I know, they won’t.

Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.