The kid walked into the bait shop carrying a five-gallon bucket and accompanied by a lady I figured was his mom. He looked to be about 13 years old.
“We need some minnows,” the mom said.
“We’re fresh out of perch minnows,” I informed her. “All we have right now are shiners. They’re nine dollars a dozen.”
I always expect a gasp or groan when I tell folks the price, but this pair didn’t seem to care.
“How big are they?” the kid wanted to know.
“C’mon back and have a look,” I said, gesturing towards the bait tank. The three of us stepped to the rear of the little shop where the three-section tank burbled with its six aerators and refrigeration unit droning. I figured the youth wanted big ones for targeting big fish. He surprised me.
“Do you have any smaller ones?” the kid asked, looking at the swarming shiners, most about three inches long.“Oh, you want them for your garter snake too?” the mom asked her son. “Your water snake is big enough to eat these.”
This comment changed my whole take on what was going on. I’d started the part-time job a couple of weeks earlier and everyone else who had come in for minnows wanted fish bait.
“I never realized garter snakes would eat minnows,” I offered. Mom and son both nodded.
“Yeah they do,” the boy said.
The store’s bait tank is long, with three sections separate by screen partitions. The shiners are on the far left. With the little net, I scooped three or four shiners at a time, picking out even amounts of big ones and smaller ones, dropping them into the bucket until there was a baker's dozen or maybe a couple more than that. At nine bucks a dozen, I want to make sure the customer has a few extras.
“Hey, there’s a couple small minnows in the middle tank,” the kid said. One was a small shiner that was a challenge to net, although eventually it joined the others.
The final, lone fish in was easy to net. It was small, and looked kind of like a guppy.
“Hey it’s a Gambusia!” the kid said excitedly. “I’m going to put this one in the pond!”
“A what?” I asked.“A Gambusia, commonly called a ‘mosquito fish’ and sometimes called a ‘gambezi,’” the young man said, not put off at all by my ignorance. “They’re native fish, pretty common. They eat a lot of mosquito larvae.”
“Oh, well, Gambusias are $50 here,” I said, and the kid thought maybe I was serious, but smiled when he saw me smiling.
It was a great little encounter. This kid reminded me of me when I was his age and younger. I used to read bird books and guides to reptiles. He and his mom told me they had quite a collection of snakes and reptiles, most of them released after a short time in captivity. I thought back to the garter and hognose snakes we kept in big peanut butter jars for a few days before letting them go. We had lots of salamanders, too, mostly found in Warren Woods by Union Pier, and kept covered with wet leaves in buckets.
It was good to see a kid who had a solid connection with nature. It occurs to me that such an attitude is dreadfully lacking in many people of all ages today. I think of friends who immediately try to kill any snake they see, even here in Michigan, where only the massasauga rattler poses any kind of venomous threat, and very little at that. These fat little swamp rattlers are endangered and rarely bite people.
I’d had a nice chat with him and his mom, and when the mom said “we’ll be back tomorrow for some smaller minnows,” I hoped I’d be on duty. This day I’d learned that garter snakes eat minnows and that there’s a little fish that I’d probably seen in various ponds and thought it was a minnow. Nope, it was a Gambusia, a fish thrived on mosquito larva.
Outdoors columnist Dave Mull lives in Paw Paw. Write to him at email@example.com.