Down at the corner of the property grew a large catalpa tree. It was a special tree. It was my favorite tree. It was a special place.
The broad leaves made a huge canopy roof, keeping out the sun, and light rain. The tree was very climbable for a youngster like me. About eight feet off the ground were limbs that easily adapted to a tree house. Well, it wasn’t really a tree house. I simply placed several boards on which I could sit and oversee my kingdom below. I could peer out and watch for advancing enemy armies.
The old catalpa tree (some call them catawba trees, and to others they are cigar trees) grew large pod-like seed capsules, which dangled from the tree and were a foot to a foot and a half long. They became swords or other fun “toys” for me and my young friends.
The catalpa has beautiful blossoms that look a bit like an orchid, and the wood of the tree makes very good fence posts. But nobody was going to cut or harm my tree. Actually, it was on my uncle’s property, but it was my tree--at least in my mind.
My dad took a strong interest in the tree for another reason. Later, we shared the interest.
The big green leaves attracted large black and green worms (caterpillar), which commonly are referred to as catalpa worms. They are ugly and messy, and love to munch on the leaves and can do damage to the trees, although they never seemed to hurt my old tree.
My dad learned as much as the worms love to munch on the catalpa leaves, catfish love to munch on catalpa worms.
Dad had a two part metal minnow bucket. The outside was simply a bucket with a handle. It would hold water. An inner bucket had holes in the sides. It also had a handle. You could lift up the inner bucket, some water would drain, and that made it much easier to catch the minnows.
The inner bucket also made a great container to keep catalpa worms for a catfish fishing trip. Dad would hand me the bucket and send me to the tree to collect worms. First, I was to place leaves inside the bucket. Next, I was to pick off all the worms I could reach and place in the bucket. It had a lid to keep the worms captive.
As I recall, the worms made their appearance during early summer. Sometimes there would be a second infestation.
References to their use for bait reportedly date back to the 1870s. When put on a hook, which according to some should be a circle hook with heavy sinkers to make sure the bait rests on the bottom, a bright fluorescent green fluid oozes from its body that smells sweet, which is its attractiveness. It is also reported to "wiggle forever on a hook." This sweet aroma and liveliness of this worm apparently make it appealing to catfish.
Photographer writer John Maxwell said, “ think my dad used to cut them in half and turn them inside out, which was icky enough for me to try chicken livers instead.”
Friend Teresa Bragg Rice, former publisher of the Mt. Vernon Democrat, recalls, “We had a large catalpa tree in our back yard near Benton, KY. It sat pretty close to the back door of our house.
“My dad, Bobby Bragg, was an avid fisherman. Every summer the big greenish worms with a black stripe down their backs would show up on the tree. Dad would pluck several of them off, place them in a jar and head off to various places on Kentucky Lake.
“He used them exclusively for fishing for catfish. They worked pretty good, and he hauled in several fish over the years using them. Mom wasn't too fond of the tree because the worms can be pretty messy. She finally insisted on it being cut down. That was the end of some pretty good and free fishing bait.”
Catalpa worms are an old-time bait that bring back old time memories.
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