What Does Fish or Cut Bait Mean?

Fish or Cut Bait Meaning

Definition: Make a decision or withdraw from the activity or conversation.

Origin of Fish or Cut Bait

This expression comes from fishing, of course, but there are a few ideas to its origin.

Some say it alludes to a fisherman who should either actively try to catch fish or cut up bait for others to use. In this sense, someone is using the expression as an imperative.

  • You can either fish or cut bait. Take your pick.

The other interpretation is that of a person sitting with a fishing rod and bait on the hook, but who is not actually fishing. This person is just wasting time. He or she should either start to fish, or release the bait.

In any event, the expression first appeared in the middle of the 19th century.

One of its first recorded uses is in the legal system, specially a case between US Attorney General Caleb Cushing and William S. Hungerford in 1853,

The case was presided over by Judge Levi Hubbell, who stated:

  • Judge Cushing has commenced a suit in the United States Court. Judge Cushing must either fish or cut bait.

It also appeared in the Congressional Record in 1876, when Congressman Joseph P. Cannon urged his Democratic colleagues to vote on a bill that would legalize the silver dollar.

  • I want you gentlemen on the other side of the House to fish or cut bait.

If judges and politicians were using the expression in the 1850s, it is likely that it was commonplace long before that.

Examples of Fish or Cut Bait

fish or cut bait idiom The dialogue below shows two friends talking about where to go for dinner.

Giuseppe: May, I know the best place to go for dinner tonight. Come on, I’ll drive us.

May: No way, it’s my turn to choose. You chose the last three times.

Giuseppe: Okay, fair enough. Where do you want to eat?

May: Um…I don’t know. Maybe an Italian place? No, I’m trying to avoid gluten. Maybe we could eat Indian food. Oh, but maybe Greek food would be better, since that new Greek place just opened. Or if we want to eat faster so we get to the movie earlier we could just get some fast food. But that wouldn’t be very healthy. Perhaps Italian food would be good. I could get a seafood dish. Or maybe..

Giuseppe: Enough! Fish or cut bait. Either make a decision, or just let me choose.

May: Okay, okay. Let’s just get steak.

Giuseppe: Fine.

what does cut bait mean In the dialogue below, a father and his daughter are getting ready to go on a horseback ride.

Rafal: Vesna, what are you waiting for? Get on the horse.

Vesna: I will. It’s just that the horse is really big. I’m just taking a moment to prepare myself.

Rafal: Prepare yourself for what? You’ll just be sitting there. Just get on.

Vesna: Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe there was a good reason why I’ve never done this before.

Rafal: Listen, if you don’t want to ride the horse, you don’t have to. But you do need to make a decision, so fish or cut bait. You have 10 seconds to decide.

Vesna: Okay, fine. I’m getting on.

More Examples

This excerpt is from an article about how a comedian knew he wanted to marry his wife.

  • Basically, when Colbert was younger, he was dating this girl, and she told him to “fish or cut bait,” meaning he had to marry her or stop dating her. –USA Today

The second excerpt is about a State’s Attorney and the bad publicity she is having.

  • “I think Marilyn Mosby is very concerned, as she should be, about her political career,” Wayne Cohen, a Maryland defense lawyer and law professor at George Washington University, told USA TODAY. “She has to make some decisions on whether to fish or cut bait on this. I think she will continue to fish.” –USA Today


The idiom fish or cut bait is another way to tell someone to either take action or remove themselves from the process.