Conservation, Ecology, and Management of Catfish: The Second International Symposium

Back to the Fifties: Historical Use of “Willow Cats” as Bait in the Upper Mississippi River Valley

Philip A. Cochran


Abstract.—After previous work indicated that tadpole madtoms Noturus gyrinus have been sold as “willow cats” and used as a bait species along the upper Mississippi River near Winona, Minnesota since as early as the 1970s, a digital search of Winona newspapers published from the late 1800s through 1960 was used to extend the historical record farther back in time. “Bullhead minnows” were used as bait as early as the 1920s, but most uses of this term occurred during the early 1950s. “Bullhead minnow” and related names were replaced in the mid-1950s by “willow cat,” probably to avoid confusion with less preferred young of the true bullheads Ameiurus spp. at a time when bait shops began advertising the availability of madtoms. That both “bullhead minnow” and “willow cat” referred to the same species is suggested by similarities in how the two baits were used. Both were used from April to October, primarily by anglers targeting large walleyes Sander vitreus in the tailwaters of dams or the vicinity of submerged wingdams. Use of willow cats in the 1950s, as in modern times, extended from lower Lake Pepin (Pool 4 of the Mississippi River) downstream at least as far as Pool 9. Historical patterns inferred by this study might be validated by comparable searches through archives of newspapers published in other river towns. There remains a need for further study of the current tadpole madtom fishery and its sustainability.