Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Insects used to lure fish

Humans have "gone fishing" for eons. Archeological finds from Eastern Asia indicate that humans were consuming freshwater fish 40,000 years ago. Native Americans in California were using lines and hooks to catch fish 3,000 years ago.

No doubt the earliest fishing activities of humans were for the purpose of providing food. Early permanent human settlements were established in locations associated with good fish habitats. The earliest fishermen likely used spears or nets to capture fish. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote about the striking of fish in the light provided by fires. The Greco-Roman sea god Neptune is depicted holding a three-pronged fishing spear.

No one knows for sure when fishing became a recreational activity, but it was certainly long ago. Ancient Greeks and Romans both advocated fishing for sport.
Fishing for fun has been part and parcel of the recreational scene of the United States throughout most of our history.

Historically, "going fishin'" would involve an old cane pole, a line, a hook and a bobber. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn might have possessed just such equipment to fish in the Mississippi River. The old southern play-party tune, "Crawdad Song" refers to similar fishing equipment -- "You get a line and I'll get a pole." Of course, that song talks about fishin' in a crawdad hole, but fishin' has come to mean trying to catch any water-dwelling creature, and crawdads or crayfish, as some call these fresh-water crustaceans, qualify.

"Gone Fishin'" was the title of a song recorded in 1951 by Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. The lyrics include the line, "Well there's a sign upon your door." This might be the beginning of the oft-used comment or posted sign indicating that a person is away from work engaged in a fun activity such as fishing!

Of course, fishing does require equipment and oftentimes bait. The idea of fishing using a line and a pole is to somehow get a hook in the mouth of the fish. One of the ways to do that is to offer the fish some item of food secured on the hook.

Soil-inhabiting, segmented annelids called earthworms are perfect for baiting a fishing hook and are often called fishing worms for that reason. When given the chance, many types of fish also eat insects. So grasshoppers, crickets, mealworms and bee moth caterpillars are sometimes used as bait.

Fish come by their habit of feeding on insects naturally because insects share their freshwater environment. These are known as aquatic insects and include immature forms of mosquitoes, midges, mayflies, dragonflies, damselflies, stoneflies, caddisflies and dobsonflies. Some adult insects, such as water beetles and water bugs, also live in the water. All can end up as fish food.

Water-dwelling insects are difficult to catch and use as live bait, so humans have resorted to developing replicas of such insects to attract fish to the hook. Such replicas are called fishing lures.

Fishing using lures made to look like insects is appropriately known as fly-fishing. This type of fishing has been around since at least the 2nd century when the Romans were trying to catch fish with artificial flies. The modern activity probably originated in Scotland and northern England, or at least was written about, in the 1400s. Americans were fly-fishing using horsehair fishing line at the time of the Revolutionary War. The first detailed description of the sport was included in Izaak Walton's book called "The Compleat Angler or Contemplative Man's Recreation," which was published in 1653.

Fly-fishing lures are created to resemble an insect and then presented in such a way as to mimic the behavior of the insect in or on the water. For instance, lures called floaters and sinkers act like terrestrial insects that accidentally fall on the surface of the water and either float or sink.

So in fly-fishing, there are names for all kinds of artificial flies. Dry flies are lures designed to float. Wet flies sink. Nymph flies look like an immature form of an insect, such as a stonefly. Emerger flies resemble an adult emerging from the last immature form. So-called terrestrial flies look like insects that don't live in the water but just fell in. All of this gets a bit complicated, but fly-fishing is really an art, or so I'm told.

My favorite lure is one for bass fishing called the firefly. It is a hollow, clear plastic device that unscrews in the middle. It works this way: Unscrew the lure, fill it with fireflies and cast it into the water. I suppose in theory the flashing insects will attract fish to a lure!



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox