On one recent afternoon, Bill Woodward of Monmouth was telling me about his commercial bait-fishing experiences that morning, his excitement resembling a little kid talking about Christmas.

Woodward and his co-worker, Steve Staples of Winthrop, capture bait fish to sell, and they had found a school of emerald shiners (Notropis atherinoides) in a central Maine lake.

“They’re a smart bait fish,” Bill said, “They had me hooting and hollering as we tried to hone in on the school.”

His excitement paralleled a man with a fly rod chasing the lordly permit or Atlantic salmon, not commercial bait fishermen after shiners to fatten their wallets. This schooling bait fish had challenged Bill, all right.

Woodward’s description of his day on the water surprised me little, though. I’ve heard this retired fisheries biologist tell bait-fishing stories before, and they often involve anecdotes about the excitement of the chase.

For tens of thousands of years, wild predators and humans have foraged for bait fish for bait and food. (Smelts pop to mind in the food category.) Because of the unrelenting onslaught, bait fish have developed evasive survival skills.

Woodward spent his adult life handling thousands of fish that he had trap-netted or electro-fished, but finned critters still fascinate him, as our conversation illustrated.

Outdoors folks know about the thrill of targeting such critters as deer, moose, bear, grouse, woodcock, ducks, brookies, landlocks, bass or stripers. Woodward was merely illustrating yet another dimension of a little-known, secretive endeavor in the outdoors — the life of a fisher of bait.

I say “secretive” because Woodward seldom mentions the “where” in the story. He’s as quiet about those locations as I am about a trout brook.

Emerald shiners do intrigue me, particularly after a public debate over this species broke out two or three years ago, a debate that I had quietly started by mentioning a point to a fly-fishing activist.

Humans introduced emerald shiners to Maine, so it has always surprised me that Inland Fisheries & Wildlife had made it a legal bait fish. The activist went off in an indignant pucker that played out on the Web, at hearings and in the media.

People with a vested interest in the bait-fishing industry were claiming emerald shiners were indigenous to Maine, and some of the louder ones claimed early ichthyologists in New England had missed cataloging them — pure and simple. At least two fisheries biologists at IFW agreed that this shiner was a Maine native, including Woodward.

I have a degree in English, not biology, so I do not pretend to know the definitive answer. Over the past 40 years, though, everything I have read about emerald shiners said that the range included lakes and rivers across the middle of this continent, from the Gulf of Mexico far into the Canadian North and eastward through the Great Lakes. In short, this shiner allegedly didn’t exist close to New England until bucket biologists put them here.

I’m strictly a fly-rodder, so I seldom handle bait fish except when dam tenders lower the water on a river and trap them in shallow puddles along shore. While sneaking along, I spot a little fish and catch it for scrutiny.

Several years ago, my introduction to a live emerald shiner came in just that manner on the Shawmut stretch of the Kennebec River. A single shiner in a shoreline puddle caught my eye, so I dug a little aquarium fish net from my fly-fishing vest, normally used for capturing insects. It comes in handy for dipping bait fish in shallow water.

When this shiner lay in sunlight against the white-mesh net, the origin of the name “emerald” became obvious. The silvery fish had a bright-green stripe along both sides that extended up toward the rather transparent dorsal fin. This lovely creature looked tropical to me.

Vic Dunaway wrote an excellent reference book, “Sport Fish of Fresh Water,” that includes bait fish. He wrote that emerald shiners average 4 inches in length and that at times, fly-rodders inadvertently catch them on tiny flies while fishing for game fish. I never have.

Trappers, bear baiters and other practitioners of lesser-known sports such as bait fishing provide folks with a challenge that few of us think much about because we don’t do it. Woodward reminded me of that principle.

For a few years now, I’ve been trying to get a column out of Woodward about his bait-fishing life, but he keeps the where-to and how-to quiet for fear other bait dealers will encroach on his spots. At the end of November, though, he was chatty about the topic.

Whether we’re amateur outdoors folks, guides or bait dealers, the thrill of the chase captures our soul. In Woodward’s case, he finds a challenge and a way to fatten his checkbook at the same time.

What could be more alluring?

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]