Raising leeches a brisk business

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) -- Phil DeVore pulls a folded piece of aluminum from a murky pond. The aluminum looks like a piece of siding that's blown off a building, but DeVore knows it's much more valuable than that.

He slips a rubber band off the aluminum and unfolds it. He likes what he sees -- 50 or 60 glistening black leeches.

They're your common ribbon leeches, Nephelopsis obscura to aquatic biologists. But DeVore prefers to call the slimy creatures by another name.

''Black gold,'' he says, smiling.

They're gold to DeVore, who makes his living by trapping, feeding, buying and selling leeches for fishing bait.

''I guess I'm a leech rancher,'' says DeVore, who works 20-hour days this time of year to meet anglers' voracious demand for this favorite walleye bait.

DeVore, 50, has been making his living this way for 16 years. He has built 11 ponds on his 120 acres in the clay country south of Superior, Wis., where he feeds and bulks up his leeches for the bait-shop trade. Like the stock trader who tries to buy low and sell high, DeVore buys small and sells medium. Or large. Or jumbo.

''I'm a feedlot operation,'' DeVore says. ''I buy a lot of spring leeches that are too small for the medium market. I feed 'em intensely for the spring, then harvest them.''

He's one of a kind in this area, said Jeff Gunderson, associate director of the Minnesota Sea Grant Extension Service.

''I get 50 calls a year from people looking to do that same thing, but he's the only one who's done it and is making it work,'' Gunderson said.

On track to become a fisheries biologist in the late 1970s, DeVore nailed down both bachelor's and master's degrees in fisheries at Michigan State University. It was a leech study with University of Minnesota Duluth biologists Hollie Collins and Linda Holmstrand that turned DeVore on to the wriggly species.

The study eventually determined that it would be difficult to ranch leeches indoors, but by then DeVore had figured out he could raise them in ponds. And he had the perfect place for ponds -- rural Superior with its nearly impermeable clay soils. You dig a pond in that soil, and it'll fill up faster than you can say Nephelopsis obscura.

''We bought this place, and it turned out to be perfect for what I do,'' DeVore says. DeVore's wife, Lucy, 49, is a psychologist in the Duluth school system. Their schedules mesh almost perfectly. Lucy's off in the summer when Phil is pulling 20-hour days. He's off in the winter when she's working. More important, her steady income allowed DeVore to make the transition from fisheries biologist to leech wrangler.

Most of DeVore's leeches come from shallow prairie ponds in western Minnesota where they're trapped. He meets leech trappers halfway across the state, exchanges empty pickle pails for those full of leeches, then hustles home.

''Western Minnesota is the leech capital of the world,'' he says. ''There's no place better. There's a 40-acre lake there you can trap every day for 60 days and never see the catch rate drop. I go to a pond here for three days and see the rate drop every day.''

The competition is keen to wild-trap leeches from those western Minnesota lakes, DeVore says. He knows of one 90-acre pond, trapped by permit, where the trapper has been offered $20,000 to give up his trapping rights for one summer.

''It'll produce $50,000 worth of leeches in a 60-day time period,'' he says. Once home, DeVore tosses the leeches into his ponds and starts feeding them. He feeds ground-up fish organs, beef and turkey liver, whatever meat he can find that someone wants to get rid of. He can feed smaller ponds from shore by throwing scoopfuls of feed into the water. In large ponds, he must disperse the feed from a canoe.

Feeding often happens at midnight or later, when orders have been filled and leeches have been sorted.

DeVore checks the progress of his leeches almost daily to see that they're growing. Leeches are sold as medium, large or jumbo, which is determined by the number per pound. He tries to get his to large or jumbo size before he harvests them.

Leeches have a two-year life cycle, and all of the leeches used in the bait trade are 2-year-olds. They can be trapped successfully only in May and June. If a trapper waits too long, the leeches ''won't trap'' or their quality will be inferior.

His traps are ingeniously designed -- by DeVore himself. He scavenges aluminum printing plates from the Superior Evening Telegram, folds them a couple of times, slaps a piece of turkey liver in the fold and wraps a heavy rubber band around the whole works. He tosses the trap in the pond, and a cord runs from the trap to shore.

The trap can be emptied with only a couple of swipes of DeVore's hand into a waiting pickle pail.

''What's great about him,'' says Sea Grant's Gunderson, ''is that he has the scientific background to analyze what he's doing. He has that research thought process and curiosity. But he's down to earth. He has the 'keep it simple and make it work' philosophy.''

Once DeVore harvests his leeches, he holds them in insulated tanks of cooled water in his leech barn. He moves 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of leeches -- that's a couple of million of the critters -- each summer, and he can hold nearly half that many at one time in his barn.

''One of the real pluses of my business is I can hold leeches real well,'' DeVore says. ''My August leeches are as healthy as my May leeches.''

In May and June, leeches usually retail for $9.95 per pound (mediums), $11.95 per pound (larges) and $15.95 per pound (jumbos). In August those prices are often somewhat higher because leeches are so hard to come by.

''That's the trick, is to hold them longer than anybody else can,'' said Sea Grant's Gunderson. ''It's the old supply-and-demand thing.''

In the fall and winter, DeVore's ranch is leechless. He referees and coaches volleyball, a favorite sport of his. He bowhunts in November. Last winter, he took up curling. He keeps meals on the table for Lucy and their 13-year-old daughter.

And, no. They do not eat leeches.

''People always ask me, 'Do you ever eat 'em?''' DeVore says. ''I can't afford to. Steak is much cheaper.''


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