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The Leech Trapper
By Leif Enger
July 30, 1997

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Rod Fudge, of Perham, is a leech trapper. In fact, with seven employees crouched in johnboats all over northern Minnesota, Fudge is the largest supplier of fishing leeches in the upper Midwest. Each year he ships 15 tons of the slippery critters to baitshops around the country. Fifteen tons of leeches: all probing and wriggling, all desperately hungry -- all caught by hand.
(SFX: water and oars)

Fudge: There's what they call a ribbon leech, a cow leech, a turtle leech and a horse leech, and then your fishing leech. There's Greek names for em, but that's, that's for guys who set in an office, you know? The secret is to have a nice fresh bait, cause they're a nice clean animal, they don't like anything that's sour, rancid, spoiled; they're very fussy. You could take your clothes off and get in a tank of leeches with say 60-80 pounds of em; and you wouldn't have a mark on you in the morning. They wouldn't puncture you, not a leech. Uh-uh. Matter of fact I'll tell you what they'd do, they'd clean your skin. they'd clean you up like a lily white whistle. No they don't suck on you, a leech don't. The only way they'd break your skin, was if you took a glass and put over em, and cut off their oxygen supply, then it would break your skin to get at your blood, for the oxygen, cause they're not bloodsucking leeches. I call these the friendly leeches.

Fudge: This is called a tin, an aluminum tin. (SFX: sheetmetal flexing) I'll use a double sided tin. I put meat in both sides of the tin. We use bags, mostly, but you won't see any on this pond, because bags are susceptible to snapping turtles, and we've got snapping turtles you wouldn't believe around here. They'll shred a bag in seconds.

Enger: Tell me what you're using for bait.
Fudge: OK i'm using beef kidney. I've tried it all. Well guess I haven't tried it all - haven't tried human heh heh heh heh, but I've tried pork, beef, chicken works fine. We used to butcher people's cows that died, use the whole meat, some ponds it works, most it don't. So we went to beef kidney. I used to get it for about ten cents a pound. Then they found out leeches wanted it, it went to thirty cents a pound. My bait bill for the year is between $13,000 and $15,000. It's unbelievable.

You see now, what I got there? These are old old traps, probably two, three years old, but they're still getting leeches as you see. (crinkle) There's a horse leech! It's real flexible, it droops, it excretes a slimy white solution. They do buy a few down in Illinois and they use em on trotlines for catfish. Catfish will hit 'em. There are a few guys who fool with them but we don't because they don't stay in their tanks. They crawl, they'll crawl anywhere. You could set a horse leech in a bucket and set a board on it and a brick on the board and in the morning you come and the board'll be gone and the brick. They're that powerful.

Fudge: There is only one area in the world that's got leeches. Little strip of North Dakota, fair little strip in Minnesota, anything south of Alec is pretty sad, anything north of Red Lake is pretty sad. Everybody says they've got leeches. But not like this.

Enger: So we're actually looking at some exotic little critters here...
Fudge: Oh, yeah. There's none anywhere else. I mean you go anywhere in southern Minnesota and they got nothing but ribbon leeches, they say they got nice leeches but they don't. I'm not here to criticize em but it's the truth.
Enger: You work, Rod, horrendous hours.
I get up about 1:30 every day, every morning. My shipping days are Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday... 17, 18 hours a day, seven days a week. So you gotta go out every day, come hell or high water, I've leeched in blizzards you couldn't imagine, you couldn't see anything, couldn't see shoreline it was blizzarding so hard. I tell you, I wouldn't mind selling out and lettin' somebody else have the heartache and with a better prospect of business maybe than I am, but who wants to work? Nobody wants to work anymore. I'm kinda depressed when I think of that. my own boys would like to get into it - but their women say, 'Uh-uh, it's too many hours.' I'm not here to badmouth women, but they don't understand. They can make a good living in four five months' time and have the winter off. Hey, everybody to their own. My own sons, to keep their marriages goin, can't do her. I'll probably end up someday, just closin' her up.
Enger: But not for a while?
I'm not in bad shape for a 60-year-old man. In 27 years, I've never missed a day. I never catch a cold, I'm always outside. I'll probably end up dyin' of a heart attack but, boy, that's the way to go if it's all over with. We sat down and figured it out: I rowed, in one season, from Perham, Minnesota to Barstow, California. That's how far I rowed. Not in a lifetime; in one season. I'd be very unhappy doing something else I think. I don't know; I've never done it. I'm still free - this way I don't have to answer to anybody except taxes, insurance, DNR -- everybody, hee hee hee!