March 31, 2014

A Plea For Help - Save Our Wild Puffer Balls!

The wild puffer ball.  A unassuming creature, one that has joyfully entertained children for years with its googly eyes, squishy body, and unique ability to transform shape when handled.

Puffer balls entertaining children - life as it should be

Unfortunately, the wild puffer ball has not fared so well in recent years.  Fly fishermen have taken to retail store shelves and purchased untold quantities of wild puffers, with the sole intention of harvesting their tentacles for fly tying materials.  As recently as yesterday, a post by angler and guide Kent Klewein on the popular fly fishing blog Gink & Gasoline preached the virtues of puffer ball tentacles in fly tying, adding yet another example of the harmful use of wild puffer balls that had previously been running rampant on underground social media outlets such as forums, Facebook, and Instagram.

A wild puffer ball tentacle used for fly tying

Collapsing Populations

As a result of this fly fishing subculture, wild puffer ball populations have collapsed to all time record lows.  The chart below shows steady population levels among wild puffer balls through the first decade of the 2000s.  The sudden drop in wild puffers, especially those pink in color, is a recent phenomenon corresponding directly to the rise in popularity of "Squirmy Wormie" flies (also known as the "San Ron Worm") being first utilized by fly fishermen.

Extensive scientific research at the University of Mississippi State Tech in 2012 proved that wild puffer balls did not react well to the harvest of their tentacles.  The study found that the tentacles do not regenerate leaving the ball bald, stressed, and undesirable as a mate to puffer balls of the opposite gender.  Additionally, in 17 of 20 cases, the open sores left behind from harvest led to fatal infection.

Unsuccessful Breeding Programs / Show Me The Money

What do do?  With the surge in demand, many traditional fly tying material companies such Whiting Farms have been racing to breed genetically modified puffer balls that yield more tentacles - a solution that if kept separate, would take strain off the wild population.

While this research has been somewhat successful, Whiting has yet to yield the results they were seeking, as the genetically-altered, farm raised puffer balls on average have only had a life expectancy of 4.2 months, far too young for tentacle length to reach a mature, harvestable length.

Immature farm raised puffer balls

In many circles, there are also some concerns about what might happen if the lab-created puffer balls ever did interact with the genetically pure, wild populations.  As anglers, we need look no further than the wild vs. farmed salmon debate to illustrate these concerns.

In researching this story, I reached out to several retailers currently offering wild puffer balls in their stores.  As of today's running of the article, requests to Walmart, Target,, and Dollar Tree have gone unanswered.  Only Dollar General, the retailer featured in the Gink & Gasoline blog post offered the following statement:

"We at Dollar General do not rest in our mission to provide our customers with quality merchandise at low prices.  While we are concerned by the recent reports that the puffer balls on our shelves are being misused by a small segment of our customer base, both wild and farm raised puffer balls will remain available for sale as we conduct our own internal investigation."

A Dollar General display of wild puffer balls

The Fly Fishing Demographic

Why?  Why are we as fly anglers putting such pressure on wild puffer ball populations?  Are we that destitute that we need to roam the aisles of Dollar General to acquire fly tying supplies?

Ronald Cheapswill, Marketing Manager for Pabst Brewing Company offered this insight on the fallacy of "value conscious" fly fishermen.

"We've been trying to figure out the fly fishing demographic for several years without much success.  Most claim to love obscurely named I.P.A.s [India Pale Ales], yet they also claim to love our product for its friendly price-point.  Strangely most also insist that the only acceptable way to cool their "value" Pabst Blue Ribbons to drinking temperature is to keep them on ice inside $500 unbreakable coolers.  I guess it only makes sense that they would find it appropriate to raid dollar stores for inexpensive fly tying supplies to use in conjunction with their $700 rods and $300 reels."

Image Lifted from Mystic Waters Fly Fishing - Angler identity concealed for his safety

Furthermore, noted fly tyer Sir Charles vonBarkley opined, "Any knucklehead knows you can't call yourself a real fly fisherman if you tie a rubber worm on your hook.  That's turrible.  You might as well use Powerbait."

Many conservation minded groups have also begun to rally behind the plight of the puffer ball.  Spokesmen Dr. Woody the Cowboy and Buzz Lightyear Esq. from Toys for the Ethical Treatment of Toys (T.E.T.T.) have found that the cases of puffer ball abuse are now at an all time high.

"We thought we had put a stop to toy mutilations in 1995 via our awareness campaign during the original Toy Story film - when we gave the creepy neighbor kid the "scared straight" treatment - but a recent surge in gruesome puffer ball dismemberment has gotten our attention and needs to be immediately halted.  If our friend Ken was anatomically correct, I shudder to think of his fate in the hands of anglers such as Mr. Ashlin or Mr. Klewein."

Our Children (& Our Sport) Are At Stake

Outside of trying to keep the wild puffer ball population from reaching endangered species status (or worse), one overlooked group in this equation are our children.

Kris Trap, National Director of Communications for Trout Unlimited noted the concern that much like a feeding trout, lies just beneath the surface of this situation.

"Trout Unlimited has partnered with the fly fishing industry for years via many different grassroots initiatives in order to recruit the next generation of conservation-minded fly fisherman.  What lesson does our conduct toward wild puffer balls teach these children?  I have to be honest, I'm personally concerned about creating a backlash in our younger generation toward fly fishing.  I'd hate to turn off  fly fishers of the future when they learn that anglers are the primary reason why there are no puffer balls for them to play with." 

Anita Sassoon, heiress to the Vidal Sassoon fortune, reached out to Troutrageous! when she learned about the research taking place for this article.  As a fly fisherman I'm reluctant to print her words as they are very pointed and painful to read, but many sacrifices are necessary in the interest of wild puffer ball preservation.  Per Ms. Sassoon:

"The recent conduct of fly fishermen is saddening and highly hypocritical.  A few short years ago they attacked the salon and hair care industries for accelerating its use of feathers as a hair accessory, a product which they also use to tie flies for fishing.  However today, they do not hesitate pillaging the toy boxes of children to appease their own selfish fly tying needs.  In simple terms, they are taking toys directly from the hands of our youth; it's appalling and borderline abusive to both puffer balls and children."

The Wild Puffer Ball's Future Is In Your Hands

Without your support in raising awareness to its plight, the future of the wild puffer ball does not look good.  As a conservation-minded angler, my only ask is that we all consider our actions when entering stores such as Dollar General in the future.  Not everything needs to be applied to fly fishing.  Yes, inanimate objects such as foam sheets or tinsel can be purchased from the craft aisle in good conscience, but your decision to leave the puffer ball in the bin for a deserving child to purchase may not only save that species from certain extinction, but it may just preserve the future of our sport as well.

Save The Wild Puffer Ball


  1. Pebble Mine. Dam's in California Steelhead rivers coming down. Striped Bass Populations. Acid Rain and wild brook trout habitat...

    Many things prompt excellent blog posts...

    But sir, you have just officially posted the greatest blog in the history of the fly fishing, and possibly beyond, bloggosphere!

    Pure, AWESOME!

    Thanks for starting my week so well!

  2. I assumed this was a weird Pa. way to say 'puff ball.' You know, those things on the ground you step on.

    1. I had the same thoughts. It took a while before the first picture downloaded.

  3. I have to agree with Hibernation here. G&G wish they could write stuff this good. I "Lol'd" several times until I really started thinking about what might become of the wild pufferball. Then I got all sad. But then I made a sammich and I was happy again. :) Good read. Your fans thank you.

  4. Well you have more than succeeded in starting my morning out with a laugh, thanks sir!

  5. Dude, you crack me UP. But then I was sad when I thought about the seriousness of the situation. Then I remembered other posts about Lilly and Minecraft.... If it weren't for us fly tying anglers, those puffer balls would have no reason to live (or die). Kids don't plays with toys anymore!

  6. Mike, one of your best posts ever. This is the first I've heard of the demise of the Puffer Ball, but when in Walmart or Target, I will defend them with my life, maybe. Save the Puffer Ball campaign have begun.

  7. Mike, if you start a petition I will sign!

  8. I'll repeat what, Hibernation, said...."Pure, AWESOME!"

    I have never enjoyed a blog post this much. I didn't realize the damage I was causing purchasing those puffer balls, until now.

  9. Surely this is a site well worth seeing.

  10. Brilliant!
    Unfortunately, this has only made me want to further endanger the wild puffer ball.

  11. As opposed to addressing everyone individually, I'd like to thank all of you for your almost unanimous support of the wild puffer ball. Children (& puffers) all over the world thank you for your time and enhanced awareness toward the cause.