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Salamanders as fishing bait in the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province of East Tennessee.

ABSTRACT--Knowledge of the uses made of salamanders by humans is important for conservation and management purposes. This investigation, conducted primarily within the Blue Ridge Mountain counties of Tennessee, reports on the use and selling of salamanders as fishing bait from May 2002 to June 2003. One of 75 bait, tackle, and marina businesses surveyed sold live salamanders. Selling prices ranged from $4.00-$7.00 per dozen. Lack of reliable suppliers, concern for endangered species, and the uncertainty about the legality of selling salamanders were given as reasons for businesses not selling salamanders. Of 321 fishermen surveyed, 6.5% reported using salamanders as bait during the time frame of this investigation. Most fishermen who used salamanders caught rather than purchased them.


Sold under the vernacular names "waterdogs," "water-lizards," and "spring-lizards," salamanders have been marketed to fishermen as bait. Etnier and Starnes (1993) listed salamanders as effective natural baits for black basses, Micropterus spp., and writers of popular bass fishing books tout the use of salamanders as bait as well (Circle, 2000; Weiss, 2001). A long history of using salamanders as bait in the Blue Ridge Mountains exists. In the early 1950s fishing with salamanders in the southern Appalachians was so popular that thousands were collected and some were even shipped to the Piedmont and Coastal Plain (Martof, 1953).

Most fishermen who use salamanders select stream and streamside species. Desmognathus are preferred; however, species of Eurycea and Gyrinophilus are also collected for bait. Some species of these genera existing in or near the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province of East Tennessee are of interest to conservation groups. Desmognathus aeneus Brown and Bishop (seepage salamander) and Eurycea junaluska Sever, Dundee, and Sullivan (Junaluska salamander) are listed as species "in need of management" by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (2002) and the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program (2001). Desmognathus quadramaculatus Holbrook (black-bellied salamander) is "watch-listed" by the Tennessee Natural Heritage Program (2001).

Salamander population declines, geographic range extensions, and hybridization due to fishing and bait trade activities have been documented. Redmond (1980) reported on the decline of local populations of Desmognathus welteri Barbour (Black Mountain dusky salamander) in Tennessee, suggesting that the species' distributional pattern may have been altered by fishermen. Martof (1953) and Camp (1989) discussed D. quadramaculatus introductions in Georgia as a result of fishing activities. In central California Fitzpatrick and Shaffer (2004) found hybridization between two historically isolated species, Ambystoma californiense and A. tigrinum mavortium, as a result of bait trade activities. Benjamin and Shaffer (2007) found hybrids of these two Ambystoma species to exhibit hybrid vigor, and they suggest hybrids may eventually replace the historically pure A. californiense.

This investigation was undertaken at the request of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and United States Forest Service (USFS). The purpose of the study was to determine the scope of the salamander bait trade from May 2002 to June 2003 and the use of salamanders by fishermen in the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province of East Tennessee.


Bait store personnel, fishermen, and TWRA officers were interviewed to determine the use of salamanders as bait. Employees of 75 bait stores were interviewed by personal visitation, telephone, or both. Businesses surveyed were determined by consulting TWRA officers and USFS personnel, by asking fishermen where they purchased live bait, and by phonebook listings. With few exceptions, business personnel interviewed were located within, or in close proximity to, the Blue Ridge counties of East Tennessee. Interviews were conducted during May, June, and July of 2002 and 2003. Most businesses were contacted twice, once in 2002 and once in 2003. Those reported as, or actually, selling live salamanders were contacted more frequently than those not so reported. The scope of the investigation was limited to the Blue Ridge counties of East Tennessee at the request of TWRA and USFS.

Seven TWRA officers assigned to the Blue Ridge counties were interviewed. They were contacted to ascertain their knowledge of businesses selling salamanders and to obtain recommendations on businesses to contact. Fishermen (n = 321) were interviewed on nine bodies of water located in East Tennessee to determine their use and acquisition of salamanders. Waterways surveyed were determined after discussions with TWRA officers, USFS personnel, and local fishermen.


Of 75 bait, tackle, and marina businesses contacted in 21 East Tennessee counties (Table 1), only one sold live salamanders between March 2002 and June 2003. This store, located in Carter County, sold live salamanders during the spring months of 2002; even though six visitations and three phone calls were made to this store during spring and summer 2002, no live salamanders could be purchased. Personnel at this business reported that salamanders sold quickly, and they were able to sell all they could obtain (several hundred individuals). When contacted during the spring months of 2003, they were not selling salamanders because their supplier had stopped collecting them.
TABLE 1. Numbers of bait dealers contacted in each county.

County No. Bait Stores

Anderson 2
Blount 4
Bradley 1
Campbell 2
Carter 4
Cocke 2
Green 3
Hamblen 1
Hamilton 6
Hawkins 1
Jefferson 3
Johnson 1
Knox 1
Loudon 4
McMinn 1
Meigs 2
Monroe 6
Polk 8
Sevier 8
Sullivan 11
Washington 4

Two businesses reported selling live salamanders prior to this investigation. One business sold live salamanders obtained from a person in North Carolina during 2001. These businesses did not have a supplier during 2002 and 2003. Interviews of fishermen revealed an additional two businesses that had in recent years sold live salamanders. However, when contacted, they reported not selling live salamanders during the time frame of this investigation. Thus, four of the 75 businesses contacted had sold live salamanders prior to this investigation. Two other businesses mentioned the chance of selling endangered salamanders as the reason they do not sell live salamanders. Employees of five businesses surveyed thought it unlawful to sell live salamanders.

Of the 321 fishermen interviewed, 131 were fishing for trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss Walbaum (rainbow trout) and Salmo trutta Linnaeus (brown trout), and 190 for bass, Micropterus spp. (Table 2). No trout fisherman reported using live salamanders as bait when fishing for trout. Among bass fishermen 24.7% reported fishing with live salamanders while pursuing bass prior to or during the time of this investigation. Of all fishermen interviewed only 6.5% (n = 21) fished with salamanders from March 2002 to June 2003.
TABLE 2. Numbers of trout and bass fishermen surveyed on nine East
Tennesse waterways.

Waterway # of Fishermen Type of Fishing

Cherokee Lake 94 Bass
Citico Creek 78 Trout
Doe River 2 Trout
Douglas Lake 14 Bass
Nolichucky River 9 Bass
Tellico Lake 50 Bass
Tellico River 31 Trout
Watauga Lake 23 Bass
Watauga River 20 Trout

Most fishermen caught salamanders rather than purchasing them. Of the 21 bass fishermen fishing with live salamanders from March 2002 to June 2003, 16 caught their own salamanders, three purchased salamanders from bait stores, and two had both caught their own and purchased them.

Almost all fishermen using salamanders as bait did so during spring months. Only two fishermen continued using salamanders into summer months. No fishermen reported fishing with salamanders during autumn months.

Most fishermen used relatively few live salamanders when compared to use of other natural baits. Seventeen of the 21 bass fishermen fishing with live salamanders during the course of this investigation used four dozen or fewer per year. Eighteen of the 21 fished with live salamanders during six or fewer fishing trips. However, two fishermen reported using approximately 400-500 salamanders during the spring months. These two fishermen reported catching salamanders from their own property.

The cost of buying a dozen salamanders varied between $4.00 and $7.00. The business located in Carter County reported selling a dozen live salamanders for $7.00. Three fishermen reported paying from $4.00 to $6.00 per dozen prior to this study. One store owner suggested he could sell salamanders for S12.00 per dozen. Such pricing places salamanders at the high end of purchase cost for natural baits and may be too high for some fishermen when minnows and earthworms sell for much less.

The TWRA officers interviewed knew of no businesses selling salamanders during 2002-2003. One officer reported that most fishermen using salamanders caught their own. Another officer stated he thought that most bait dealers no longer sold live salamanders because of state regulations protecting some species and that bait dealers could not distinguish protected species from unprotected ones.


No evidence was found of a large salamander bait market in the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province of Eastern Tennessee during the time of this investigation. The salamander bait trade appears to be driven by the availability of local harvesters. The impact of the salamander bait trade on local salamander populations in the Blue Ridge Physiographic Province of East Tennessee is thought to have been minimal during this investigation.

Three factors influence the selling of salamanders by bait stores: maintenance of a constant supply, concern about selling endangered species, and the legality of selling salamanders. A major concern for businesses willing to sell salamanders is having a supplier that can provide animals on a continuous basis. Most fishermen catch, rather than buy, their own salamanders. One reason for this could be the high purchase price. Another reason may be that few bait shops sell salamanders or sell them on a consistent basis.

The potential harm which could be done to populations of salamanders by localized salamander bait trade activities is real. Local populations could be depleted by the successive removal of sub-adult and adult size individuals (sizes appropriate as fishing bait). Such individuals represent the breeding and future breeding members of the population. Many salamanders do not reach reproductive size until they are four to seven years of age. Bruce (1989, 1990) and Castanet et al. (1996) reported that female and male Desmognathus monticola Dunn (seal salamander) first reproduce when five-to-seven and four-to-five years old, respectively. If a stream is heavily harvested for two to three years, enough breeding age and near breeding age individuals could be collected to lessen the survivability of the population or at least affect population dynamics. Redmond (1980), reporting on the distribution and ecology of Desmognathus welteri in Tennessee, stated that one of the main causes for the extensive decline of local populations was a result of their being collected as fishing bait. He mentioned finding one bait shop having approximately 300 individuals of D. welteri for sale as bait. Further, he stated that collecting pressure probably resulted in the removal of reproductively active females.

The potential of unwanted releases should be considered. An introduction of salamanders collected and transported from a distant location could occur within local populations. If fishermen were to release salamanders at the end of a day of fishing, new alleles could be introduced into local populations. Fitzpatrick and Shaffer (2004) have proven hybridization between Ambystoma tigrinum mavortium and A. californiense after the barred tiger salamander was introduced by fishing bait dealers. Benjamin and Shaffer (2007) reported the potential harm this hybridization could cause to populations of A. californiense. Also, similar to some bait bucket releases of minnows, temporary or persistent populations of salamanders could be established at previously unoccupied sites. Mart of (1953) and Camp (1989) reported on populations of Desmognathus quadramuculatus established by fishermen in the Piedmont region of Georgia. Redmond (1980) suggested the widespread use of D. welteri as bait has resulted in the decline of some populations, while numerous introductions by fishermen may have altered the natural range of this species in Tennessee. Another concern is the spread of parasites and disease by movement and release of salamanders by fishermen (Green and Dodd, 2007).

Events such as those mentioned above could occur in East Tennessee, as one business reported buying salamanders from a harvester from North Carolina. Also, two fishermen reported collecting salamanders in Virginia and fishing with them in Tennessee.

The alteration and loss of habitat are significant factors causing reductions in salamander populations. The use of salamanders as fishing bait is another human activity that has the potential to harm salamander populations.


This work was supported in part by grants from TWRA and USFS. We wish to acknowledge the field assistance of J. Moore, M. Thornton, S. Peters, E. Bridenbaugh, H. Ross, and S. Weaver. Also, we are grateful to P. Wyatt (TWRA), R. Kirk (TWRA), and L. M. Lewis (USFS) for advice. Special appreciation is extended to J. Petranka and two anonymous reviewers for providing constructive comments on this manuscript.


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Author:Copeland, John E.; Mears, George L.; Caldwell, Ronald S.
Publication:Journal of the Tennessee Academy of Science
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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