Many anglers, particularly in the South, learn at an early age how to recognize the catalpa tree with its big heart-shaped leaves, spotted white flowers and long, cigar-like seed pods. Across its range, which stretches from Georgia to New York and across the Mississippi Valley, this popular ornamental is known by a variety of descriptive names: Indian cigar tree, smoking bean, catawba and candletree, to name just a few. But wherever it’s found and whatever you call it, it’s the source of some of the best fishing bait there is – the lowly little catalpa worm.
The catalpa worm really isn’t a worm at all, but the caterpillar of the catalpa sphinx moth, a pretty little nocturnal insect few people ever see in its adult form. In spring, female moths lay thousands of eggs in clusters on the undersides of catalpa leaves. In 10 to 14 days, each egg hatches into a tiny caterpillar with a whale of an appetite for catalpa leaves.
The velvety larvae grow quickly and are soon 1 to 3 inches long and as big around as a pencil. They’re black, yellow and white and have a wicked-looking but harmless spine on the end opposite their ever-moving jaws. On their bellies are rows of suction-cup feet that allow them to cling to leaves as they feed.
By early summer, it’s easy to spot a catalpa tree. Each one looks like it was fired upon by a gigantic shotgun, the foliage riddled with holes left by hundreds, even thousands, of hungry larvae. Left to feed, they will soon denude an entire tree. The caterpillars head down the tree trunk when the leaves are gone and burrow in the ground where they stay until their life cycle starts again.
In most of the latitudes where catalpa trees thrive, fishermen begin gathering catalpa worms in April, May or June. Sometimes a second “hatch” of worms appears in late summer as well.
Non-anglers often are eager to get rid of the worms destroying the foliage of their trees, but be sure to ask permission before you start collecting. Worm poaching is considered a serious offense in some areas, and if the trees’ owner is a fisherman, you could find yourself escorted from the property with a gun barrel pressed between your shoulder blades.
When you have permission, gathering catalpa worms is simple. Spread a bed sheet or tablecloth under a tree, then use a long cane pole to slap the leaves. This produces a shower of falling worms. Once they're grounded, it's simply a matter of picking them up and putting them in a cool container with a few catalpa leaves, and it’s time to go fishing.
You can fish with catalpa worms the same way you would fish with earthworms. Thread one on a fine wire hook, leaving a bit of worm hanging free on each end, and toss it in a likely spot. Some fishermen believe it improves the appeal of this bait to turn the worm inside out on the hook, but this can be messy and isn’t necessary.
The worms spit a brown fluid that stains your hands, but this is simply plant juice, the worms’ way of discouraging predators. The liquid is harmless.
Catfish consider these unusual creatures a gourmet delight, and catfishing enthusiasts probably use more catalpa worms than all other anglers combined. Trotliners are especially fond of them, because it’s easy to gather large numbers quickly and inexpensively. The larvae are tough and elastic, difficult for a catfish to pull off a hook, another favorable characteristic. Small catalpa worms also make great bait for bluegills, redear sunfish and even crappie.
Although live catalpa worms are only available during a few months each year, they can easily be stored for use during the off-season. Catfish relish them live or dead. After collecting the worms, drop them in a plastic bowl or other container full of ice water. This helps them retain their natural color. Then put 20 to 25 of them in a quart-size zip-seal bag and fill the bag with corn meal. Place the bag in the freezer, and pull it out again when you’re ready to fish.
Thick, shade-producing foliage and showy flowers make the catalpa tree a popular ornamental. The trees are easy to propagate, so it’s simple to grow your own source of backyard bait.
Your county extension office or local greenhouse proprietor should be able to offer suggestions on purchasing seedlings and planting them in your area. Or you can try to transplant volunteer sprouts grown from seeds that have fallen beneath established trees. Two- to 4-foot tall volunteers are ideal candidates for transplanting, and if moved properly, a 75 percent or better success rate can be expected. Larger volunteers can be transplanted, but the mortality rate increases.
Catalpa trees grow best in heavy soil – dark loam, silt or clay. Transplants should be watered daily for two to three weeks until new growth is detected. Afterwards, nature will do the rest.
Fertilize the trees each winter with commercial fertilizer or compost until they reach 10 or 12 feet. At this height, additional fertilization is unnecessary, and the limbs can be pruned periodically to reduce the effort required to harvest the worms.
If there aren’t any established catalpa trees that produce worms close to your yard, you may have to give new trees an initial “priming” to get them started. Placing a dozen or two half-grown worms on each tree will provide offspring for that tree and others in the area for years to come. Just remember, when harvesting catalpa worms, always leave a few on the tree “for seed.”
Money might not grow on trees, but the world’s best bait for catfish does. Why pay for bait? This season, plant a catalpa in your backyard.