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Kenneth Kieser: The perils of stinky catfish bait

The Examiner
Hard to believe that the author holding this stringer of fish ever polluted a lake with limburger cheese or that he ever had a full head of hair.

Artists are responsible for my earliest fishing addictions. They tempted me with brightly painted scenes of bass taking lures, crappie swimming upward to take a minnow, catfish swimming toward a baited hook or big bluegill attacking a popping bug.

These beautiful fantasies were featured on calendars and outdoor magazines we found in barber shops, so naturally they had to be accurate scenes of a typical fishing day.  

My family moved from our farm to a lake when I was in sixth grade, and suddenly fishing was within walking distance. My new buddy, nicknamed Goose because of his high-pitched voice, lived next door and quickly taught me how to catch fish with bait. 

Soon we were hooking bluegill on earthworms pulled from under neighbor ladies’ rocks that were neatly stacked around their flower beds – at least until they caught us. My mother apologized to the neighbors for my actions and her embarrassment and anger eventually filtered down to me, especially when we got caught repeating this terrible deed a couple of days later. 

My grandmother, an old country woman, suggested that I spread coffee grounds, potato peelings and other rotten stuff where I wanted to find worms. This worked well, but the neighbor ladies had much better worm soil and eventually noticed thick layers of coffee grounds and slop with freshly dug dirt in their flower beds – the first but not the last time I ever saw the neighbor ladies red-faced angry while yelling at Mom while she glared at me. 

Most of my chewing out sessions came from Mom because Dad came home from work and couldn’t stop laughing at my antics – and that made Mom angrier – bad for Dad and even worse for me. Grandma, of course, found the entire situation hilarious. 

Later Grandma, who had a wicked sense of humor, told me how hog manure attracted catfish, but my mother found out before I could test this water-polluting theory. 

An older neighbor learned of my problems and started giving me his outdoor magazines. He thought I needed a better education on fishing, plus his wife was tired of us digging up her flower beds.

I was reading a copy of Field & Stream one dark night instead of doing homework and found a fisherman talking about using stinky stuff to attract catfish to any favorite fishing spot. This started me thinking. It happened that my uncle made limburger cheese, and few earthly substances stunk worse. 

My great uncle Fritz brought his limburger cheese recipe from Germany where it was widely considered to be the most popular of all smelly cheeses. He fermented it using Brevibacterium linens, a bacterium that partly causes human body odor. Recipients of this cheese were accurate when they claimed it smelled like sweaty human feet. 

Fritz had lost all sense of smell and taste in World War I by once inhaling mustard gas to settle a bet and had no idea how badly his cheese smelled or tasted.  

Uncle Fritz gave us a round of his prized cheese every year for Christmas. He called the gift a “truckle,” named for its cylindrical wheel shape. Mom took what she considered to be the gift she always dreaded receiving to our cellar where it was locked in an air-tight case with several other truckles from Christmas’s past. Fritz’s other family members had found other methods of disposing the truckles after discovering that even the mice or rats at the city dump wouldn’t eat it.

The Field & Stream story gave Goose and I incentive to test the stinky catfish attracting theory. I couldn’t imagine anything smelling worse than Uncle Fritz’s cheese, so maybe the catfish would like it. 

One dark summer night we carefully opened the air-tight trunk and removed a truckle of the rank cheese. The smell evidently carried up stairs because I heard Mom yell at Dad, “Go outside if you’re going to do that.”

Poor Goose and I gagged while carrying the cheese, but we were determined to finish this experiment with our new catfish attractant. The smell was even worse after being stored with other truckles that had aged several years in the air-tight trunk.

We finally reached the lake and tossed Fritz’s cheese in quickly as possible. Goose smelled his hands and said, “Wow, next time let's wear rubber gloves.”

The following day we caught catfish up and down the shoreline where we had thrown Uncle Fritz’s truckle. Others took note and started fishing, everyone taking their limit of nice-sized channel catfish.

We proudly walked home to show our folks the beautiful string of fish we caught for dinner. Minutes later we started cutting up the fish in my backyard and a terrible stench filled the air. Clearly the catfish had devoured that truckle of limburger cheese. Their bellies were full of it and they reeked.

Other fishermen and neighbors sitting on their back porch complained of the terrible smell and no one could figure out how to remove this world-class stench from the normally succulent fish. 

I even heard one neighbor tried soaking the fish in inexpensive whiskey. He finally threw the catfish away and drank the booze that was tainted by the cheese, but after a few gulps he didn’t care. We soaked our fish in buttermilk and saltwater without success. The fish were ruined and so was our stinky catfish theory.

The catfish rapidly grew larger than normal and years later you can see them glowing at night in the lake, a condition that fishery biologists call an unexplainable phenomenon, compliments of Uncle Fritz.  

Kenneth Kieser, a veteran outdoors writer and member of the Waterfowlers Hall of Fame and National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, writes a weekly outdoors column for The Examiner. Reach him at kieserkenneth@gmail.com.

Kenneth L. Kieser