KEVIN TATE: Shaking the tree, seeing what fell out made good gathering

By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer

The black and green caterpillars we always called “catalpa worms” after the trees on which they hatch and feed have filled thousands of freezers with catfish over the years, but not without their difficulties.
If there’s a trotline bait consistently better, the Old Men who trained me never discovered what it was, though not for lack of trying.
Catalpa worms are seasonal and gathering them depends first upon finding a tree on which a hatch has grown to the right size, which is to say, completely matured and on the very verge of leaving the tree to burrow into the ground and move along on their path to becoming moths. This tree also has to be short enough to allow someone on the ground access to the leaves, which is where the worms live and feed. Then the worms have to be individually picked by hand or, more often, flicked from their perches one at a time with the use of a long cane pole, then found wherever they fall and sequestered until use, which yields the diabolical combination that the best bait to use is also the most trouble to gather.
Cheese, cubed soap and bits of sponge soaked in fish attractant all had their turns at bat on our trotline hooks, as did more reasonable candidates like large minnows, goldfish and cut shad. Once one of my Dad’s fishing buddies used Dad’s trotlines on a weekend when Dad couldn’t go, and the buddy baited at least some of them with whole toads, a crime that’s bound to be a hanging offense in some parts. The aftermath still stands out in the minds and olfactory memories of all who witnessed the next use of the lines a week later, when the remains, tough as they were pungent, still clung to each hook, exactly where the guy had left them. I never heard whether toads made good bait, but I was convinced their drawbacks far outweigh anything positive they might accomplish.
Most of the artificial baits were complete strikeouts, and none merited more than a couple tries. The live and cut baits all caught fish, though not as consistently as catalpa worms, but they also attracted gar, the long-snouted tooth-laden freshwater predators that strip every hook until they’re snagged themselves, then twist the line into a modern art masterpiece.
By the time I’d reached my late teens, my Dad and the Old Men had planted a catalpa tree orchard on their land and kept it pruned so the worms could be harvested by hand from the ground without breaking any limbs, the trees’ or our own. It was certainly an improvement over the old gathering methods and it eliminated the need for further research into bait, which is a good thing, because you never know when the next thing you tried was going to turn out like the toads.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.