Amanda McNulty

SC Gardening: The fish bait tree

amcnult@clemson.eduSeptember 27, 2012 


I’d never heard the phrase” bucket list” until that movie about old men jumping out of planes before they died came out. But I’ve always had certain desires, too, that I hope will be realized, and I checked off a big one this past week.

I found catalpa trees with caterpillars on them.

There’s lots to love about catalpa trees, even those without caterpillars. A relatively fast growing tree, but with strong wood, catalpas have big leaves that make a grand medium-sized shade tree. Why anyone would plant an invasive paulownia tree when she could have its native lookalike, the catalpa, is beyond me. The white and yellow flowers of the catalpa are more beautiful than those pink things paulownias produce, and how can you not get excited about a tree that has the common name “Cigar Tree?”

But back to those caterpillars. Riding home from Columbia last week, I took the Old Belleville Road and saw a fence row line of catalpas — some of which were eaten up. The shoulder was wide so I pulled right over to scout for those Lepidopteran larvae. After a minute or so, I was in the thick of them. The big fellows were just beautiful, fat and substantial. Some tiny ones were also present, about three-quarters of an inch long, and some in-betweeners. All had a black spine arising from the end of their abdomen.

The last instars of these larvae are yellow with a black band running down its back. Some are missing the black stripe and have a white, spotted, dorsal surface. The only thing catalpa “worms” can eat is the leaves of catalpa trees.

The largest have strong prolegs with which they keep such a tight grip on the leaves they are devouring that you literally have to peel them off. Their thick skin and juicy insides make them a grand “worm” for fishing as they don’t tear up on the hook. Lots of people used to plant catalpa trees, usually called “catawbas,” just to support their fishing habits. To make the larger, tougher worms more appealing, tried and true anglers pinched off their heads and turned them inside out with a wooden match stick.

Planting a catalpa, however, is not like one of those “if you build it they will come” situations. No one knows why, in a group of catalpas all growing together, some have caterpillars eating on them every year while others escape completely. The adult sphinx moth, Ceratomia catalpae, lays her eggs on catalpa leaves early in the spring as her larvae can only eat and digest catalpa leaftissue. The newly hatched larvae go through several molts before dropping to the soil and pupating (without a cocoon) in the ground before emerging as adults. The six-week long cycle continues through the summer with the last group overwintering as pupae.

I cut several long stems with relatively intact leaves off the host tree and put them in the back seat.

Then I collected as many larvae as I could find, small and large, and laid them on top of their supper.

At home, I made a nice centerpiece with those catalpa stems adorned with caterpillars. My family was nice enough to feign great delight, as were my office mates the next day when I showed off my prize. At lunch, I took my larvae to a healthy, nearby catalpa that was growing on a grassy, vacant lot and released them in the leaves. No catalpa trees I’ve seen in Sumter have had holey leaves so I’m anxious to check on the youngsters in my caterpillar nursery and see how they are faring.

Amanda McNulty is an associate extension agent for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service and is a co-host of “Making It Grow” broadcast weekly on ETV television stations. Website:

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