by Thomas (T-bone) Maul
Half of the joy in fishing as a youngster involved the thrill of catching the bait. Being the industrious young anglers that we were, my friends and I would try anything that fit on a fishing hook at least once. We ran the gamut of live bait from grasshoppers to crawdads, with even one short-lived and interesting, but quite painful, foray that involved a bumblebee.
Nightcrawlers were always, and continue to be, my favorite bait. I like nightcrawlers because you can never be quite sure what you\’re going to catch with them. There is no fish so proud that it won’t give in to the wriggling temptation of a sultry crawler. Also, nightcrawlers were bait that we could catch, which was an important incentive because none of our parents were exactly the Rockefellers. The only exception was Feeney, a snobbish kid who seemed to have everything we wanted and never failed to make a big deal of it.
For this and numerous other reasons, Feeney wasn\’t well liked by Timmy, Weber or myself. Timmy was my wisecracking neighbor with a wit so sharp it often rivaled that of Red Foxx. Weber wasn\’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, but his heart was in the right place. He was the new kid on the block, having just moved from the hills of West Virginia into a dilapidated, ramshackle house that featured a scenic view of the railroad tracks.
We often let Feeney come fishing with us, simply because our second-hand bicycles held together with rusty recycled parts were no match for his brand new five-speed stingray. Of course, Feeney also had the latest top model graphite pole and fancy reel. Timmy and I were both happy enough with our humble, but efficient, Zebco202\’s. Weber didn\’t exactly have a pole, but he could turn into the angling MacGyver once we reached the lake.
Weber\’s normal \”outfit\” consisted of a large stick, a hook, a spool of kite string, and a medium sized rock. The rock was important because it not only served as a sinker, but also determined the length of his \”cast\”, which was simply however far Weber could hurl the rock, tied to the kite string, into the lake. Reeling was the tricky part, but Weber put his hillbilly resourcefulness to work. It was easy to know when he had a fish because he\’d suddenly do an about-face and sprint like a maniac off into the thick brush. We\’d usually wait until we\’d spot a fish mysteriously coming out of the water and travelling after him at about the same rate of speed before yelling to him that he could stop running. It wasn\’t the prettiest technique, but Weber didn\’t fish for the sport of it; he fished to have something to eat.
The owner of the local bait shop, Big John, began accepting our excess nightcrawlers in exchange for necessary fishing tackle. Once Timmy had successfully negotiated this little business venture with him, catching nightcrawlers became almost as important as catching fish, especially considering Big John\’s fixed rate of three dozen crawlers per pack of snelled hooks. This deal was okay with us, however, because we were too naive to know any better.
\’Nightcrawling\’, as we began to refer to it, had some necessary precautions that needed to be considered in order to be successful. If there was no rain, it was necessary to water the yard well with a hose prior to sunset. Secondly, the grass had to be cut low, which discounted the three-foot high garden of prickly weeds growing vigorously around the perimeter of Weber\’s house. High grass not only camouflaged the crawlers, but also served as warning antennae that, if alerted, could send them zipping back into the deep earth in the blink of an eye. One had to cautiously stalk the nightcrawler, carefully inching closer until pinching them as close to their escape hole as possible. Then began the tug of war, which was a game often lost due to their lubrication. A working flashlight was also a requirement, although Weber had somehow trained his eyes to detect anything that glistened in the moonlight. Timmy and I were often amazed at how he would amble off on his own, with no light whatsoever, and come back in five minutes to plunk six nightcrawlers into our bait can, before shuffling off into the outer darkness again without saying a word.
The bait container is, perhaps, the most underrated and overlooked piece of equipment for the worm hunter. Finding a good container was sometimes problematic, particularly after I helped myself to Mom\’s Tupperware container and placed it in our refrigerator with a full load. Her screams, after opening my nutritious leftovers the following morning, could be heard nationwide and may have struck a seven on the Richter scale.
As we began making our plans to get nightcrawlers, Feeney happened to ride up on his new bike.
“What are you guys doing?” inquired Feeney.
“Making plans to get nightcrawlers tonight, you want in?” I offered, knowing that Feeney probably had some powerful flashlights, unlike my K-Mart ‘blue light special’ and the corroded batteries that barely powered it to a dim flicker. My flashlight also had a trick of cutting off its lightbeam just as I would crouch to catch a crawler. The only way to make it work again was with some whap maintenance from my free hand, which tended to put every worm in the vicinity on high-alert, with most shooting back down into their holes.
“No thanks,” answered Feeney, with a tone of condescension. “I never use nightcrawlers.”
“You never catch any fish either, Feeney,” responded Timmy.
“I catch lots of fish when I go trolling with my dad in our big boat.”
“You might catch them when you\’re with your troll, but I never seen you catch one when you\’re with us,” replied Timmy, spitting on the ground as if adding a period to his sentence.
“You want to get worms with us or not, Feeney?” I offered again, my benevolence fueled by the thought of his many bright and powerful flashlights.
“Not. But I will go fishing with you tomorrow, just to prove that I can catch more fish with my lures than you can with your gross worms,” answered Feeney, riding up the street on his shiny bike. Although Feeney had a well-stocked tackle box with three layers of drawers and a vast array of brightly colored spoons, spinners, jigs, rubber worms, plugs, flies and all sorts of gadgetry, Timmy was right; he never caught any fish when he was with us.
We, on the other hand, didn’t put much stock in artificial lures. Not that we could really afford to anyway. It always seemed to me that Feeney spent more time tinkering and showing off the contents of his tackle box than he did with his line in the water.
“I’ve got a great idea!” announced Timmy.
“Let’s hear it,” I replied, somewhat skeptical.
“Well, why don’t we sleep out in your backyard tonight and then we’ll sneak off for the golf course once your parents go to bed. There should be lots of nightcrawlers there,” he offered. I had to hand it to him; this wasn’t a bad idea. The golf course not only had short cut grass, but was watered each day as well.
“I reckon’ we could fetch us some bushel o’wurms at the golf corpse,” added Weber, apparently sensing my reservation.
This kind of eloquent peer pressure was too much. “Alright,” I agreed. “Just bring lots of pillows so we can stuff them into our sleeping bags to make it look like we’re sleeping in them.”
That night, after the lights went off in my house, we stuffed our sleeping bags with pillows and headed for the golf course. It was about a mile away and we hoped to find a worm container during the journey.
“Where’s all the litter when you really need it?” pondered Timmy, as we approached the wide-open fairway of the ninth hole. The only container we found was an empty cardboard half-pint of chocolate milk. It took us only five minutes to fill it.
“We need a big container. There are tons of worms out tonight. Let’s get enough to put Big John out of business!” exclaimed Timmy.
“I reckon’ that metal trashcan over yonder’ll hold a bushel o’wurms,” announced Weber, running to the clubhouse and ‘borrowing’ the trashcan.
“How the heck you guys think we’re going to lug that thing around?” I asked.
“I reckon’ by these here handles,” replied Weber, holding our new gargantuan worm container high in the air and beaming with pride.
We proceeded to catch nightcrawlers as if there were no tomorrow. Weber was returning from the outer darkness and dropping in a dozen at a time. Timmy and I took turns holding the flashlight and were catching a good many as well, sometimes two at a time with a tug-of-war match going on with each hand. The old “two for one” special we called it.
After a few hours, the trashcan was almost half-filled with worms. It got to be too cumbersome to drag around, so we simply left it in one spot and took turns running back to it to deposit more worms. It was filled in no time.
The three of us barely managed to drag the can the couple of hundred yards to the railroad tracks. Our plan was to have one person on each side of the can to serve as guides and Weber as the engine, pushing from behind, being sure to keep the bottom centered on one smooth track in order to get the heavy bounty to Weber\’s yard. Despite a few messy derailments and a brief scare involving an oncoming train, our plan worked exceptionally well. We quietly struggled with the can and positioned it among the orchard of Venus flytrap plants growing in Weber’s backyard.
“I reckon’ these varmints will be okay here, till we get back in the morn,” reassured Weber, while wiping the grime and sweat from his forehead with his even grimier and sweatier forearm.
“Yeah, let’s sneak back to camp. I’m beat,” I said, before trailing off toward my backyard.
It appeared that we were all tired. There was none of the usual small talk that normally transpires from young boys under the stars in sleeping bags.
“First thing in the morning, we’ll drag our worms up to Big John’s bait store. We should be able to get hooks, sinkers and maybe even a new spool of line,” mumbled Timmy, before drifting off into a deep slumber.
Our late moonlighting trip had exhausted us. We slept like three rocks, with visions of new tackle dancing in our heads. Unfortunately, the tackle danced until noon the following day, when my mom became concerned and woke us from our exhausted oblivion to see if we were still alive.
We hurried out of my yard in the direction of Weber’s house.
“Think them worms will still be good?” asked Timmy.
“Oh yeah,” I answered. “Worms are tough and they can’t climb out of that trashcan,” I replied, trotting along beside him.
“I reckon’ there’s going to be a storm over yonder near my house,” observed Weber, running with one hand raised to his eyes as a visor. Sure enough, there was a huge, swirling storm cloud directly above Weber’s house. It wasn’t until we realized that clouds don’t give off ‘chirps’ that we knew we had a problem.
We raced for his house, where his poor mother was swinging at the large cluster of birds to no avail. “What in tarnation did you boys do now? There’s enough birds here to shake a forest at!” she screamed, frantically swinging her broom in the air.
There were birds perched in a single-file circle along the brim of the trashcan and at least a hundred circling above and waiting their turn. We never thought to cover the can and these birds were eating like champs because of it.
“Arrrggghhhh! No!” screamed Timmy, as we raced to see how many were left in the can. “You guys shouldn’t have slept in so long!”
It was a somber view peering down into the trashcan. There was now only a couple of hundred worms left, compared to the thousand or so we had had the night before.
“I reckon’ one really should get hisself up early to catch the wurms,\” moralized Weber, with a huge smile on his face that somehow made the whole situation a bit less depressing.
“Well, let’s at least take what’s left up to Big John’s,” resolved Timmy.
The trashcan proved to be much lighter as we carried it the four blocks to Big John\’s bait shop. I held the door open while Timmy and Weber stumbled their way inside with the huge trashcan.
“Whoa boys, what is this, a parade?” asked Big John, peering over a newspaper from behind his counter.
“We got a couple hundred ‘crawlers, Big John. We snuck off to the golf course and must have gotten at least a thousand. These guys slept in too long, though and the birds got to ’em,” explained Timmy.
“We reckon’ one really should get hisself up early to catch the wurms, Big John,” added Weber with a serious tone.
Big John looked quite interested in our catch, as evidenced by the way he put aside his newspapers. My heart pumps pears for ya. I’ll tell you boys what, since you worked so hard, I\’m gonna let you have some hooks and sinkers and even give you some styrofoam cups to keep your worms in. It makes my heart ache to see you young fellas totin\’ that big old can around. How\’s that sound?\” he asked, while rummaging behind the counter for the styrofoam containers.
\”Can we get a spool of eight pound test, too?\” asked Timmy.
Big John had to think this over. “Hmmm, you boys drive a hard bargain. Maybe if you sweep up my floor and the front sidewalk I’ll throw in a spool of line. Rinse that trashcan out good with a hose and give the inside a scrubbin’, too.”
“Boy, that Big John is a nice guy,” observed Timmy, as we walked home with our new tackle.
“I reckon’ he is. He even let us keep our wurms and saved us from totin’ that big ole trashcan all over God’s green earth,” added Weber.
We soon rounded up our equipment and headed off for the lake on our bicycles. Lake Pleasant was really only a very large pond, but quite deep. There was a wide variety of fish, too, including bass, crappie, trout, perch, catfish, carp and the overabundant tiny sunfish.
“About time you guys got here” quipped Feeney. “I’ve already caught a few, but I threw them back.” Feeney was hunched over his three extended drawers of tackle.
“Yeah, right Feeney. Let’s see you get one now that we’re here,” responded Timmy, casting a big crawler that floated in an arc before plunking into the still water far from the shore.
“Yahoo!” shouted Weber, throwing his rock with a baited hook tied to kite string. The ‘splat’ his rock made when hitting the water caused Feeney to cringe in disgust. Weber then picked up the long stick that the other end of his kite string was tied to. I made my cast and we all waited for some bites.
“Hmmm,” pondered Feeney, while surveying the neatly organized contents of his well-stocked tackle box. “I believe this number four orange buzz bomber might work rather well today.” One small detail that Feeney failed to take into consideration was that it was never safe to be located anywhere directly behind Weber. If Weber had a fish, he would do an about face and plow over any obstacle in his way, including trees, fences, pricker bushes and even the occasional game warden.
“I got one!” screamed Weber, turning away from the lake and trampling over Feeney, who was still crouched over his well-stocked and expensive tackle box. Weber’s crusty boot sent the tackle box end over end as his other boot came down squarely on Feeney’s thigh.
“Arrgghhhh! Stop! You stupid ox!” screamed Feeney, who now had part of a treble hook in his thumb. The plugs, spinners, spoons and jigs were swirling through the air. Weber continued his charge into the thick brush, where we could hear trees being mowed down. A bit later, a four-inch sunfish could be seen travelling up out of the water and continuing its course in Weber’s direction.
“Weber, fish out of water!” I yelled. The tiny sunfish came to an abrupt halt. Feeney was even more irate when he saw the teensy fish that he had been trampled over for.
“That’s it, I’m leaving,” announced Feeney, quickly gathering his scattered gear.
“Guess you know worms are better now, eh Feeney?” asked Timmy.
“No, but I know you guys are Neanderthals,” returned Feeney, before hopping on his five-speed and making a quick getaway.
“I guess Feeney just isn’t a nightcrawler kind of guy,” observed Timmy.
“No buddy, only us professionals use nightcrawlers,” I returned.
Weber appeared from his long reeling session, fresh from the woods with torn clothing and scratches. “Where’d Feeney go?” he asked.
“Feeney left because he couldn’t stand seeing you catch more than him,” I answered.
“Some don’t like nightcrawlers, while others like to catch fish,” observed Weber, putting the sunfish on a stringer. Weber not only had the beginnings of that night’s dinner, but he also had a point there, a darn good one.