Sam Venable 

Department of Irony

One day Carl Caveman burst into his home. “Look at this fish I have provided thee,” he exclaimed to his bride.

“Oh, you big hunk!” replied Camille Cavewoman. “That is a dandy fish, for sure. Now that we have invented fire, let me cook it for our dinner.” 

While she was preparing the catch (as any good wife would do), Camille listened intently to Carl’s angling technique. 

“It’s like this, dearest. I stand in the river flowing beyond the tar pits and wiggle my toes. A fish sees them squirming and thinks they are worms. He swims to my feet and starts to nibble on the tips of my toes. That’s when I bash him with my club.” 

“Dear heavens!” gasped Camille as she surveyed the damaged beast. “Doesn’t that hurt?” 

“Only,” said Carl, limping to his easy chair in the corner of their cave, “when I miss.” 

In the 18,429 years since that encounter, anglers with a conscience have continued this debate. Among their various topics: 

Does a fish feel pain when a hook is jabbed into its jaws? 

Does it hurt the fish to be pulled against its will? 

Is the fish scared when it is jerked out of the water? 

Having never conversed with a fish, I cannot answer with any degree of authority. Nor have the people of science added much of substance to the issue, at least as far as fish are concerned.

However, if we turn our collective attention to bait, there may be an answer. After lengthy research, four scientists from the University of Lund in Sweden have determined worms indeed do feel pain when they are impaled upon a hook. I am not making this up. And you thought only Uncle Sam’s bureaucrats could work such scientific wonders. 

J. Alumets, R. Hakanson, F. Sundler and J. Thorell printed their findings in Nature, a British publication. I found a condensed version of their study in the New York Times

According to their findings, “earthworms produce two kinds of chemicals, ‘enkephalins and beta endorphins,’ which have been identified in human beings as similar to opiates in their ability to affect sensations of pleasure and pain. The production of these substances by an animal is believed to help the animal endure pain.” 

Furthermore, sayeth the Times, “past studies by other scientists had suggested invertebrates such as earthworms do not produce ‘enkephalins or endorphins.’ The presumption from this was that since there are no self-produced opiates in invertebrates, they probably do not feel pain. The Swedish team reported these substances are not only present, but are localized in “immunoreactive” nerves in the cerebral ganglion—the earthworm’s equivalent of a brain. 

“Researchers did not speculate on the nature or intensity of pain earthworms may feel but concluded that in terms of their nervous systems, humans are not as distant from the earthworm as once believed.” 

Wow. Opiates in Swedish worms? Pain and pleasure? Sounds like something for the vice squad, if you ask me. But it did get me to thinking: 

Will we soon see picket lines at the bait shop? 

Must we file an environmental impact statement before digging in the garden for red wigglers? 

What about crickets, leeches, grubs, grasshoppers and other common live baits which find themselves in the unsettling position of straddling a No. 6 Eagle Claw hook? And if being impaled weren’t bad enough, what happens when the worm, cricket, et al, is coated with a squirt of chewing tobacco juice—“for good luck”—and then swallowed, viciously, into the maw of a bluegill? 

Conversely, are we to assume canned corn, cheese, doughballs and marshmallows are viable alternatives for the humane angler? 

The mind boggles. Frankly, I need to go off somewhere by myself and think about this theory for a while. Perhaps I shall go fishing. 

Yes, that’s exactly what I shall do! Go fishing—with artificial lures, of course. And if I have a less-than-meaningful experience with mosquitoes, I shall try to refrain from slapping.

Sam Venable is an author, stand-up comedian, and humor columnist for The Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel. He may be reached at