Webmaster: John Shook
STEPHENVILLE -- The evolution of stink bait has come a long way since the ancient Egyptians used decayed bread and dates to lure catfish into their weir baskets along the Nile Delta. The eons have brought changes in bait formulas, but the main scheme remains constant: What reek will bring home the filets?
"Smells? Oh, my gosh. Dead, sweet, nasty? It'll knock your head off," said Jerry Martin, 72, of Stephenville, talking about the aroma of his product, J Pigg Stink Bait.
Catfish are like swimming tongues. Not only packed with taste buds in their mouths, channel and blue cats have up to 5,000 taste buds per square centimeter on their flanks. But the highest concentrations of taste glands are located on the catlike whiskers around the mouth.
"The barbels are chemosensory organs that allow the catfish to 'taste' its environment," said Steven Platt, professor of biology at Sul Ross State. "They are quite sensitive and discern even trace amounts of various substances in the water column. Very important for a fish that often traces its food in dark and murky waters."
Add four nostrils inside of two powerful olfactory pits located in front of the eyes, and you have a creature that can smell and taste just about anything a mile away. In fact, catfish can detect some compounds in as small of concentrations as one part per 10 billion parts of water, biologists say.
"That's why the stink baits work so well," Platt said.
Martin concocts his stink bait in his barn, perhaps a little too close to home.
"My wife, Nadean, has threatened to call the public health department more than once," Martin said.
Martin sells his product throughout Texas in quart, gallon and 5-gallon containers.
He starts with cheese, the essential ingredient in most stink baits.
"I have two truckloads out in the field now, aging," Martin said.
His blue eyes swept across the pasture past the pecan grove to a mound of whitish gray.
"I let the sun and age work on it until it starts rotting.
About three years will do it, then it's ready to mix."
According to In Fisherman magazine, the stink bait industry in the United States started in the 1920s in the form of dough baits, soft concoctions that were fingered onto hooks.
Dough baits morphed into punch baits, so named because they were applied by punching the hook with a stick into the bait can, eliminating hand stink. These concoctions were harder and stayed on the hook longer than dough baits.
For his blend, Martin mixes the super-aged cheese with cattails and moats, a third grade cotton he picks up at a gin east of Abilene.
"The fiber is the trick to keeping it on your hook," he said.
With cheese and fiber ready, Martin starts the next phase of bait making.
"I blend it in 55-gallon drums with a giant drywall mixer I welded on the back of my John Deere," he said.
After the initial blend, Martin covers the barrels.
"But only two-thirds full!"
Martin said. "Sometimes it'll blow the tops off. It's like bread dough, rises and falls.
You got to let it die first. I've sold some a little too green, and there are stores around here that had quite a mess on their hands. In fact there's a few where you can't even mention J Pigg Stink Bait."
In a few weeks, he's ready to add the secret ingredients -- he gives some murky details about black juice and rotted shad. "You don't want that juice to get on you," said Martin, his eye twitching. "It won't come off for several days. My wife follows me around with a can of Lysol and Brut."
Martin has been a pig farmer and an Erath County commissioner. He serves as a director of the Town and Country Bank in Stephenville and operates as a guide on Lake Whitney, specializing in blue and channel catfish.
"I test all my bait before I release it," Martin said.
Martin mainly sells directly to the public. At one point, he had to make the decision whether to go wholesale or keep it simple.
"I approached Academy," he said. "They told me they can't keep something that nasty on the shelves. Just as well. I like dealing with the people."