Madtoms are the deadliest walleye bait on the Upper Mississippi for both the dual-dorsaled, myopic Manitou and those who would turn this gamefish into a sandwich or trophy for the wall.
The symbiotic relationship between madtom tadpoles and fish from the Stizostedium clan is akin to the raucous feud between crows and owls. When a walleye discovers one of these toxic little bullheads swimming in its chosen niche in the grand ecosystem of the Immortal River, it will attack with extreme prejudice.
Fishers would use rattlesnakes for bait if these reptiles were that deadly on walleyes, provided they weren’t protected by law –even if the only way to put a rattler on the hook was blindly trying to stick the snake with a barb when groping in a burlap bag.
Madtoms, a. k. a. “willocats” aren’t as deadly as vipers. But the toxic poison carried in this critter’s dorsal and caudal spines will bring excruciating, debilitating pain to
those getting “horned” while attempting to impale this bait on a #1 Octopus circle hook.
Willocats aren’t protected species like rattlesnakes. But regulations on harvest, possession, sale, purchase, interstate transport and eventual use above a Mississippi River wingdam on a 14-inch leader below a barrel swivel and heavy egg sinker are as nebulous as Wild West days when possession of machine guns and moonshine hooch
was part of the fabric of American life.
There is no uniformity in laws regarding the notorious Norturus in states which border the Mississippi. This creates a real pickle on Pool 9 where three states and the federal government differ on regulating the most effective walleye bait available.
The overwhelming majority of walleye fishers are enthusiastic about abiding by reasonable rules which protect our natural resources. But with interstate laws so conflicted and vague many anglers— including this writer—have adopted the stance of “put the resource first and you’ll never be wrong”.
Minnesota allows “wild harvest” of willocats. Wisconsin mandates this bait must be commercially raised. Transporting this bait between states is forbidden unless the person toting the minnow bucket has a signed receipt for bait purchase.
Harvesting these madtoms for bait is labor intensive. This is a major reason why these tadpoles cost consumers $2-$4 a piece.
Legally raised and purchased willocats from either state are allowed to tempt walleyes in the Big River which flows between these states. Wisconsin law requires all minnows not used be dumped at the boat ramp before heading down the road. Minnesota law requires the boat’s drain plug be removed sure thing tug on the line
will be taken home in a minnow bucket after the livewell is drained.
I’ll take my chances with Johnnie Law by transporting almost three times the hourly minimum wage in bait back across the Highway 82 bridge.
Most of my “bait runs” are on the west side of the river, almost 20 miles into Minnesota –often at night, travelling back roads. The fact that every highway between these two states is a back road only makes the trip more exciting.
Maybe my covert contact gives me the mandated written receipt. Maybe not. Are Minnesota jails overflowing with madtom smugglers?
It is illegal for those holding just a bait dealer’s license to sell willocats in Iowa (a special aquaculture license is required). It is also illegal to transport willocats across state lines into Wisconsin or Minnesota –but an individual can possess these tadpoles and use them for bait in the Mississippi.
Every time a fisher comes home to Iowa after fishing with a few legally purchased willocats in a minnow bucket this angler is tip-toeing on the wrong side of the law.
But putting the resource first is a higher moral standard –that’s how real River Rats roll.
before the trailer leaves the parking lot.
Iowa regulations have a little more common sense in these rules designed to control proliferation of invasive species. But ignorance of the law is no excuse. In 2017 I paid a $120 fine for having my drain plug in place before backing down the crude “boat ramp” at Visager’s Landing just two miles into Minnesota off of Highway 26.
The Minnesota game warden was not impressed with my commonsense explanation for this faux pas. Future boating on Minnesota waters of the Mississippi required mandatory completion of an online invasive species course.
It was a teachable moment! I learned that in Minnesota “night-crawlers” are an invasive species –just like professional sports teams.
On those rare high-water occasions when I launch at Visager’s now I first pull off on the shoulder of Highway 26 for just a minute before bouncing down the rutted gravel lane to launch.
The burden of proof that this stop was not for the purpose of installing the boat’s drain plug is on the ‘carp cop’. I’m ready to take my Iowa common sense to court should this situation arise again.
With willocats going for the princely sum of $24 per dozen and the high probability that I’ll catch up to the six walleye legal daily bag limit with many minnows left, these finned golden tickets to a