The following exchange, reported by Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell in 1903, gives the background on the subject of Chewed Ox Brains for bait…it's the first time I've ever seen this subject broached. I think I'll stick to #16 nymphs for Chub…
A winter bait which has found many advocates of late years is the 'pith' or spinal marrow of a bullock or cow, with bullock's brains as ground bait, as described at p. 234. In the 'Modern Practical Angler,' I have observed that, 'For this mode of chub-fishing the colder the weather the better, provided only that the water is not discoloured. . The pith should be used with Nottingham tackle, so as to fish the stream for fourteen or fifteen yards down, the most favourable position being deepish water close to boughs and 'rooty' banks. The bait should swim about three or four inches from the bottom, as nearly as may be, the brains being thrown in from time to time above the swim. In this mode of fishing it is not advisable to bait any one swim beforehand, as chub are shy fish and it is seldom that more than two or three can be taken out of the same place without scaring the rest; consequently it is better to move from place to place, throwing in a small quantity of ground bait at each. By this made of fishing the largest chub are to be taken; and when used by skilful hands, I have known a punt well to be half filled with fish.
The following correspondence on the subject of ox brains and pith as bait, took place some years ago in the columns of the Field, between 'Greville F.' and the editor. As the correspondence, besides giving some valuable hints, presents the pros and cons of the question in a picturesque way, I here quote it.
Sir—In reply to' E. R.,' in notices to correspondents in last week's Field the following paragraph appears: 'We never used it, as one of the first directions given by those who use it is to chew it and spit it into the water as ground bait; and as we had an intolerable aversion to chewing raw material of this kind, we never got any further with it.' Now, Mr. Editor, every angler will know by this announcement what is meant, and that it is an unequivocal denouncement of the uses of ox brains and' pith' as a bait for chub. Anglers, in verity, have quite enough to refute on the score of habits scarcely refined, when the impalement of worms, frogs, gentles, beetles, snails, and even cockroaches, is in question; but it is a Uetle too bad to add to this category of uncleanly handlings that of a process hitherto confined to Otaheite. Too hot to eat these brains may sometimes be; for let me tell you, in spite of the italicised 'raw,' they are first boiled, and many an Italian considers them, with the accompaniment of a little melted butter, as fine a dish as is brought to table. I know of no work where the instructions are that these brains should be masticated in a raw state: and if any exist, the writer must have been wholly ignorant at the time that they would be useless, for the simple reason that they could not be separated by the teeth into that state of fineness of particles necessary to form the most tempting ground bait—if that can be called so that does not sink—that was ever offered to a chub. But as some doubt does exist upon this subject, let me, for the sake oi decency, first remove the prejudice against this bait entering the mouth of the most fastidious. I have here a recipe from my late friend M. Soyer, who, it will be admitted, was not altogether an unaristocratic gastronome: 'Lay the brains in lukewarm water to disgorge, then carefully take off all the skin : put about a quarter of a pound of butter in a saute- pan, rub all over the bottom, cut the brains in slices, lay them in the pan, and season according to liking. Many prefer the brains as a dish by itself, plain boiled, and merely flavoured with salt, pepper, and perhaps a slice of lemon.' Here, then, we have the luncheon prepared for the chub, minus the condiments. They are not raw, as stated, but scrupulously cleaned and skinned. Many a poor man gets a worse dinner, and there are well-fed fishermen on the Thames—puntsmen spoiled by over indulgence—who labour under a shrewd suspicion that, when they recommend brains, it is one word for the chub and two for themselves. My only personal objection to their use is dental; and if it be so in others, they must choose their fishermen like a horse, by his teeth. When Colonel S. first saw 'Nottingham George' go through this process, and witnessed the cargo of chub that was brought to punt by its application, he is said to have astonished the company at dinner at the palace in the evening by accounting for his fatigue with the statement that, while he was fishing, a man in the same punt 'blew out his brains'—the surprise being only allayed when his friends were assured that the fellow did it for his living. In using brains, the essential is that the particles should be so minute that they should be capable of being extensively dispersed upon the water. If too large, the chub would be satisfied with this^ratuitous offering, and not come to the hook—Master Chub being somewhat like the guest of Count Beauflitte, an eminent gourmand of Louis XIV.'s reign, who, objecting to the fricassde not being sufficiently minced, was answered, 'Oui, je pense la denture de mon chef actuel n'est pas si bonne que celle de mon dernier.' But what is ' pith'? This is simply the spinal marrow of the ox, which requires some little skill to manipulate for the hook, and is the bonne bouche of the repast, the brains being but an appetising whet or preparation. It will be found that after the pith is taken from the vertebrae it possesses two skins. The outer one, which if boiled would be too tough for the hook to penetrate, is removed by first cutting the tube the entire length on one side with a sharp pair of scissors, and then with the finger and thumb pulling it off the pith, which is now perfectly white, but when boiled for a few minutes the inner skin becomes brown, and is then consistent enough to hold on to the hook. This is, perhaps, the most killing bait for chub in the winter months, even when the snow is on the ground, that has ever been discovered. 'The Angler's Instructor' on this head says: 'Bullock's brains, when nicely cleaned and cooked, are as white as a curd, and fully as sweet to eat as sheep's brains. The renowned " Bendigo" when he goes chub fishing—and he is no novice at this game— takes half a hatful with him, and he is obliged to chew the brains before he throws them in; nor can he prevent, as he says, a portion going down his throat, they are so sweet : so, you see, he fishes with one part and swallows the other. Two heads of brains are quite sufficient for a day's chub fishing.' If, however, you have an epicure in the punt with you, it may be well to provide accordingly, or you may find yourself brainless before half the day is over.
-- Greville F.
[The process of chewing ox-brains, whether cooked or raw, and sputtering them into the water all day long for ground bait is certainly (at least in our opinion) one which might raise an objection to the use of such a bait on the part of any angler troubled with the slightest feelings of delicacy in the following of his amusement. Perhaps we are over-fastidious, but we cannot help thinking that, even at the expense of a slight reduction in the weight of our bag, we should prefer some other bait. We fancy we know something about chub fishing, having made some tremendous bags of them in our time; and if chub are in the least inclined to feed, we do not believe that the superiority of brains over greaves or cheese, &c would be so great^s to make it worth our while to undergo such a process. We might like to eat ox-brains cooked; we cannot say, however, for certain, as we never tried them. We do like sweetbreads, for example, but we might have a well-founded objection to chew them and spit them in the water all day. It is perhaps a matter of taste after all, and 'Nottingham George' and the renowned 'Bendy,' though no doubt capital fishermen, are hardly the Mentors whom we should select to instruct us on a matter of that kind. As regards the question of cooked or raw, we certainly have seen it recommended that they should be masticated raw, and we well remember that precisely the same objection was raised to them as we have made. We believe that a short correspondence embracing these points took place in the Field some years ago; and we well recollect, that the answer of the advocate for chewing the brains raw was that 'they were very sweet.' As we have said, we never used them, having an objection to them, as already expressed; and perhaps it would have been better to have simply chronicled our want of experience, instead of adding thereto the reasons for it. We fear that even now, when we do know they are to be cooked, that want of experience is likely to continue, unless, indeed, our friend 'Greville F.' has any sympathy with the puntsman whom he quotes, and would really like to do the masticating and blowing part of the process for us; in which case we will test the infallibility of the bait with the greatest pleasure.— Ed. Field.]