Out of Bounds

Bottom Feeders Looking Up

I wonder why “bottom feeder” is such a common go-to when you want to imply someone is simply not as worthy as you

By Rob Breeding

Back in another century, when I lived in the Bitterroot, a political controversy erupted over some issue (it is the Bitterroot, after all), the details of which now escape me. 

At one of the public meetings on this long-forgotten matter someone, a conservative I presume, announced that his opponents were a bunch of liberal bottom-feeders. One of the disparaged liberals, a local bookstore owner, found the slur amusing and had “bottom feeder” buttons made up and the libs, always a minority in the Bitterroot, started wearing them to meetings.

Still, I wonder, why “bottom feeder” is such a common go-to when you want to imply someone is simply not as worthy as you. I suppose the bottom can be a gunky mess, but in most waters, it’s where you find the best action. 

River trout are primarily bottom feeders, where they fatten up on nymphs floating by in the current. It’s great when they’re up on the surface inhaling big dry flies, but the depths are more productive and safer as well. 

And have you ever seen a pro bass angler fishing a green pumpkin Senko on the surface? Of course not.

Some of the greatest game fish are dismissed as bottom feeders. When I was a youngster just getting started in the outdoor writing business I was shocked to learn that anglers pursuing 50-pound flathead catfish on the lower Colorado River used live bluegill as bait.

“I thought catfish were bottom feeders,” I said, perplexed by this new-to-me intel. “I thought they just ate rancid chicken livers.”

Well, those flatheads will eat nasty stuff like that, but to grow to 50 pounds they need live protein — smaller fish, amphibians, wading birds and the like.

Other than my dalliance with Bitterroot liberalism I’ve mostly been in the bottom-feeders disparagement camp. But that all changed when I started fly fishing for the ultimate bottom feeder: carp. Carp taught me I might have been looking at the water upside down.

On one of my early carp expeditions I first tussled with catfish. I was dragging a weighted streamer around, hoping to stumble into my first carp when I saw a dark shape cruising about 15 feet off the bank. I stripped my streamer in its path and watched as the dark shape hurried itself after the fly and attacked.

I was using just a five-weight and the fish was quickly into my backing. I played it for about 10 minutes before I finally got a look at a channel catfish that might have been 5 pounds.

I’ve caught more marauding channel cats while carp fishing than I have carp. I’ve learned to love those aggressive, dark-bodied U-boats when they cruise into range. And unlike carp, they are usually eager to chase and attack streamers in the water column.

I’ve always been a dry fly guy first and carp have been my obsession the last few seasons, so I wanted to put the two together. You don’t often find carp on top, but there are times when you’ll see them cruising the surface, mouthing cottonwood fluff or whatever happens to be floating about. 

There are mulberry trees close to my pond, but sadly, none hang over the water. Still, the carp here are occasionally tempted by a purple mulberry fly. I tried it the other day and watched as a carp finned slowly below the fly, made a deliberate turn toward it, rolled almost upside down to get its bottom-feeder mouth parts in the correct position, and ate it.

I gave it time to turn away before I set the hook, then stood on the bank helpless as a 10-pounder charged to the other side of the pond. I eventually netted the fish, took some photos, and off it swam.

Any day you see that much backing is a good day. Every Bitterroot bottom feeder can tell you that.