Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

February 7, 2008

Mousies Ain’t Mice

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 9:46 pm

  Most ice fishing bait critters are marketed with simple easily pronounceable names.  I believe this a marketing necessity brought about by tight-mouthed frozen fishermen attempting to express themselves when their lips are iced up. Burrowing Mayfly nymphs are simply called “wigglers” and Wax Moth larvae are dubbed “wax worms.”  In this, the second in my series of bait shop entomology articles, I’d like to address the most misleadingly named ice fishing bait of all time – the “Mousie.” 

In short, Mousies ain’t mice and they ain’t cute.  They are the aquatic larvae of a relatively nice looking fly called the Drone fly (see adult here).  A fly larvae, as you may or may not know, is generally called a maggot.  It so happens that the maggot of this particular fly is commonly called the Rat-tailed Maggot. Now there’s a name to inspire all kinds of nice thoughts.  The necessity of calling them Mousies should become immediately obvious in polite society.  For instance, my wife will allow me to put a container of Mousies in the refrigerator next to the salad dressing, but would have forbidden a container of Rat-tailed Maggots.  Pre-schoolers love looking at Mousies but their parents will forbid them to look at Rat-tailed Maggots. Of course, I should mention that ice fisherfolk also call them Mousies because they do resemble a mouse in a somewhat horribly skewed way. Take a look at this view and decide for yourself before further reading.

  Rat-tailed Maggots are not cuddly looking things.  Basically a fleshy white cylinder with a needle sticking out of its butt, there is little to recommend this maggot for public viewing. I guess you could say it has a body for radio.  There is no actual face to present to the microphone, but the narrow end of the thing is technically the head end. There are seven sets of leg-like bumps arranged on the body that almost qualify as such, but the most obvious feature is the needle end – the tail of this little naked semi translucent pulsating mouse. It is this wonderful little tail that demands a closer look.


  When not residing in a bed of septic woodchips (this is how they are packaged at the bait shop) Rat-tails live in sewage.  O.K., let’s not get all shocked here – they are filthy little fly maggots after all. They find comfort in contaminated water, farm manure run-off, and other low oxygen environs that are commonly defined as maggot-gagging places.  The only way to survive in this nutrient rich swill is to use a snorkel to insure a constant supply of clean air (otherwise they too would gag).  The so-called “tail” is a telescoping breathing tube used for just such a purpose. Although the critter may only be 20 mm long, its snorkel can extend out nearly 40 mm thanks to a hollow three segmented setup that comes out like the leg on a camera tripod.  Here’s a great view of a Mousie using the full extent of its tube to reach the water surface.


  I feel it is necessary to mention that technically the Mousie breathes through its hind end.  What else would you expect from a creature sometimes called a Filth Fly by non-fishermen? 

  Sewage life is relatively easy. There are no real competitors for the rich supply of food. The maggot merely strains the watery poo through finely spaced bristles located around the mouth. Particles trapped in the sieve system are taken into the digestive tract and eventually turned into more diluted poo at the other end. In answer to the occasional need to move about, those stubby leglets are set into rhythmic motion. I clocked one of these guys (perhaps it was a gal) achieving the breakneck speed of 2 inches per minute.  At this rate, I calculated that it would take him/her/it approximately 66 days to go a one mile (a worthless fact, perhaps, but fascinating none-the-less).  You and I could certainly move faster than that if we found ourselves immersed in sewage – even if we had a snorkel sticking out of pants!


  A Mousie has little need to move any great distance.  Once they have completed their development, they need only to crawl up out of the water to find a place to pupate (usually only a few feet away). Alas, our bait Mousies will never have the opportunity to turn into adult Drone Flies.  They are destined to enter the aquatic food chain through the mouth of a fish.  It is of small comfort to note that these maggots have extremely tough skin – a trait that makes them well suited to bait life.


 Adult Rat-tailed Maggots relinquish their maggoty ways and devote themselves to a life of nectaring at flowers.  They are frequently called Flower flies because of this habit. I’ll have to introduce you to one of these attractive little creatures sometime, but we’ll have to leave this story in the sludge for now.


  Ogden Nash once quipped that “God in his wisdom created the Fly, and then forgot to tell us why.”  In the case of the Mousie fly larvae, I believe the answer is that somebody has got to eat that stuff.


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