by William Elmore Gann

There's a long story about my grandfather losing his shirt in a poker game. It seems he had bet and lost a brand new cowboy shirt, and had to go home in a polka dot pajama top. At least that's one version of how he got the nickname Polka Dot. I'll have to tell that story another time.

Elmore Bolinger Gann was born in Maize Field, Texas circa 1890. He made great stink bait, using a horrible combination of ingredients. When he had some mixed just right he'd call, "Billy! Come take a woof a this. Jus' made a fresh batch, we got ta go fishin ..." He'd smile at me from under the Stetson cowboy hat he wore all his life. I can still see his cracked-up face and wrinkled neck that mapped out a life of cotton picking and fishing.

Polka Dot loved to fish in a dreary place out in the Mojave Desert called The All American Canal, an ugly, man-made ditch running through the lower desert near California's Mexican border. It was a hot, snake, scorpion, and vermin infested cactus patch. I must have taken him on his "Last Fishing Trip" out to that old canal a hundred times over a twenty-year period. It seems my grandfather was an old man all my life.

There was this one railroad bridge out in the Mojave he loved the most. It was the only shade for a thousand square miles. We'd sit under the bridge with an ice chest full beer, throwing Polka Dot's stink balls at channel cats. Then he'd sing: "All around the water tank, waiting for a train, thousand miles away from home, been sleeping in the rain...."

His stories all started out, "One time me 'n old Charlie Pratt was a fishin' down on the Little River..." One story varied from another with the change of good old boys, or locations from one part of Texas to another. The activity he'd tell about might vary from fishing, to poker playing, or Saturday-night dancing, but the story would always wind on in wonderful images. He would end with a joke, lesson, or salient point: "Let that be a lesson to ya boy. If you're fool enough to draw to inside straight, don't bet the shirt off your back in Texas."

Seems I remember on the last trip, he'd hooked a really big one. He fought that fish for nearly half an hour. To him, this was what life was all about. He had suddenly forgotten he was old and tired. "She's good'n ain't she?" He became more animated than I'd ever seen him. He cleaned the fish, told stories, and sang old songs all the while we broke camp. Even though it was early, he insisted it was time to go. We packed our gear and went home. He died a few months later.

Sometimes, just for fun, I mix up a batch Polka Dot's stink bait, and take it out to where the railroad bridge crosses the All American Canal. I tie up a "grab hook" (as Polka Dot called trebles) on a sliding sinker. I form a little ball of that horrible stuff just so, send it drifting down river, and fish with a little piece of Grandpa's heart.

the recipe


  • Handfuls of minnows or mackerel
  • Chicken (or beef) hearts
  • A small amount of fish (or chicken) blood if available
  • Raw cotton balls (Polka Dot picked cotton all his life)
  • Flour
  • Raw Garlic
  • Two fruit canning jars

Stink bait is terrible, are you sure you really want to mix up this toxic mess? I mean really, simple dough bait (flour, water, garlic, and cheese) will attract carp and catfish, and is way more pleasant to make and use. Okay, having been fairly warned, you make Polka Dot's stink bait thusly:

The minnows and heart are minced, or as he put it, "Ya whack it all up, and put it in an ice-tea sized (12 oz) fruit jar." This is allowed to set in the sun with a top tightly screwed on. This can be done for an hour or so on a hot day. In colder weather, it can be slowly cooked. Juices are occasionally poured off, mixed with flour and garlic, then refrigerated (in a garage refrigerator, well marked and sealed). The smell is dreadful. "Don't get none a this in your eyes or on your clothes boy," Polka Dot would advise, and add with a grin, "Don't eat none neither."

When the fermented contents of the sun jar is almost clay like, it is kneaded in with more flour, and (the secret ingredient) cotton. The cotton is used to keep the stuff on the hook. In the old days, Polka Dot used raw balls as they came off the plant, but store-bought cotton works almost as good. All of this has to stay refrigerated and in a separate ice chest for road.

Fish with a rag and wash your hands at the bank. It's not really possible to get used to the smell.

back to the kitchen - back to american folk

January 25, 1998