How many of you have heard the term…

It’s time to fish or cut bait?

The modern context in which it has been widely used centered around a challenging deadline or an ambivalent situation that required an imminent decision. And in every context, it was used as a call to action. In other words…

Do something or give up!

Fishing off the Pier in Gulf Shores has been a pastime I enjoyed. I am surrounded by other amateur fishermen casting for fun and hoping to hook something cool. One summer, I watched as an older man suddenly became frenzied in his reeling. Somehow, he had hooked a very large stingray. The stingray fought hard, straining the non-commercial line and bending his rod grotesquely. I observed the man’s countenance change from elation of a large catch to concern for his gear. And yes, he pulled out a knife and cut his line. Not equipped to handle the task, that man knew he had to make a decision. Should he keep struggling with a seemingly impossible task? Or should he cut the line, losing fish, hook and yes…the bait?

He cut bait.

I have talked with many social workers who struggle with the seemingly impossible task of managing paperwork, time frames, demanding hours, and dangerous travel. All of those tasks subsequent to the overall reason they got into the helping profession. Working with hurting, sometimes angry families, the Social Worker gets little to no recognition for what they do. They get lots of recognition for what they dont do: the form they forgot to fax; the voucher they forgot to turn in; the call they forgot to return.

Its little wonder that when they think it is time to fish or cut bait, they gravitate to the modern meaning of the phrase and give up.

However, the modern version actually distorts the original meaning or use of that phrase. Giving up was never a part of the original meaning, in fact just the opposite was conveyed.

When the phrase originated, it was used by those whose very livelihood depended upon the amount of fish they caught each day. Each boat had some men fishing and some men cutting up bait to be used by those who were fishing. The term was meant to signify working as a team to get the job done. As in…

Are you going to fish or are you going to cut up the bait so I can fish?

There was a universal understanding on that boat that each job was equally important and that by working collaboratively, the job would be completed more efficiently.

I have seen this collaboration in successful child welfare work as well. Units that function as a team have more satisfaction and less feelings of isolation. Each unit member knows they are all equally important and have come to the consensus that by helping each other when those “days” come, they are confident that the act will be reciprocated for them. This builds a camaraderie and a sense of family with a shared mission. When units work as a team, there is less chaos, less grumbling and less turnover.

As a Supervisor, what can you do to build a strong team? How can you establish a collaborative unit?

1. LEAD.

So many supervisors think they are building camaraderie by pointing upward for every unpopular decision. This not only causes division, but also takes focus away from the mission. Plus, as a teacher, you are modeling a principal of no personal accountability to each member of your team. If you dont own the message, how can they? Try Leading based on the shared mission, bringing every decision and every staff meeting back to the “why” of what you do.


Help your unit to see that you do understand that their job is extremely difficult. Normalize asking for help as a sign of strength not weakness. Spend time each staff meeting talking through difficult cases and events that occurred that week. It will help your team see that each of them has had difficulties from time to time. It also helps to hear other perspectives.


Initially, you may have to ask Anne to help Barry with a difficult placement. Make sure, at a later time, to send Barry to help Tim. By building up the expectation of reciprocation, you minimize grumbling and maximize teamwork. As they trust the concept, they will begin to help each other on their own initiative.

Fish or cut bait?

You cant fish without bait and when the expectation is for a high yield, you can’t cut bait while you are fighting that blue marlin. But when you work as a team there is no giving up.

Only catching fish.

15 thoughts on “When Its Time to Cut Bait

  1. You describe a reality any person in a helping profession recognizes. As a teacher and minister, I appreciate your mission! Is there a “follow closely” button?!
    One of my favorite quotes is by Chris Croft, a leadership consultant from England: “Nobody’s perfect, but a team CAN be.” This came to mind after I finished your post.

    Liked by 1 person

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