The rewards of grasshopper spit -
During the lazy, hazy Dog Days of late summer, when the ground is baked dry and hard and worms are nowhere to be dug, we used to rely on grasshoppers for fish bait.
Hoppers were plentiful in the hay fields and pastures around home, whirring and chirring their merry summer songs, but they were quick on their feet and challenging to catch. Catching the bait was sometimes harder than catching the fish.
And messy. When you slapped your hand down on big hopper, you knew you’d get spit on.
Entomologists call it “defensive regurgitation.”
We called it spitting tobacco juice.
It wasn’t really tobacco juice, of course – grasshoppers didn’t go around with a chaw of Red Man or Apple Plug in their jaw – but the stuff was brown and sticky and looked exactly like the expectorations of old men who sit whittling on courthouse benches.
Fishing with hoppers could be a hassle, difficult to catch and messy to get on a hook, but fish ate ‘em up.
I was reminded of those bygone days the other night while re-reading Hemingway’s classic “Big Two-Hearted River,” the greatest fishing story ever told. Papa was usually stingy with words, dropping them carefully one by one like planting beans, but in this case he rattles on and on about grasshoppers.
He describes how to catch them, how to store them in a bottle, how to put them on a hook, how to cast them out where silver trout are holding head-first in the current. Nick, the fisherman, would cast up-stream and allow the grasshopper to drift on the surface, kicking and wiggling, until a big trout swirled up and inhaled it.
We didn’t do much trout fishing where I grew up, just an occasional trip to the Sequatchie River or Tellico. Most of the time we moseyed over to nearby farm ponds in quest of humble bluegills, bullheads and bass.
The farm ponds weren’t as idyllic as Hemingway’s sparkling, icy Two-Hearted River – sometimes we had to shoo the cows out of the murky water before we started fishing. But we made do.
We didn’t float our hoppers on the surface, but instead weighted them with a split shot and fished them deep. We caught a fish on just about every grasshopper, and at the end of the day we’d trudge home with a heavy stringer cutting into our tobacco juice-stained fingers.
Nowadays I doubt many any fishermen use grasshoppers for bait. Few of us live next to a hay field or cow pasture, and chasing hoppers across suburban lawns might make the neighbors jittery.
It’s easier to drop by the local bait shop and pick up a tube of chirping crickets. Crickets are just as effective as grasshoppers for most species, and they don’t spit on you.
But Hemingway didn’t write a classic about Nick buying a tube of crickets at a bait shack.
Grasshoppers, on the other hand, were worth a thousand words.