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In commercial fishing, both tasks are usually considered to be of equal value.Obviously commercial fishing is hard work and can be risky.Cushing was displeased with Hubbell's conduct of the case an threatened to have him impeached."Fish or cut bait" It, allegedly, means to make a decision. "Fish" is pretty clear: the act of trying to catch fish. (Though I do NOT recommend this for wedding proposals) Either Jump in and do the damn fishing, or get your booty back there and cut bait to help out the people who are doing all the work.Gene Dillenburg wrote: There's a bit of a debate over the meaning of the phrase fish or cut bait.Some feel it's a general exhortation to "get to work": get busy fishing, or get busy preparing bait.In the context of fishing, the literal meaning of fish or cut bait involves making a choice as to which task suits you best.Catching fish and cutting bait are separate activities.
Since fish or cut bait has come to include the possibility of abandoning the activity altogether, some have interpreted "cut bait" to mean 'to cut the bait off the fishing line before going home'.
This is probably the wrong interpretation, because, as I've described, "cut bait" means 'to cut up dead bait'.
I'm sure many people favor the vulgar synonymous phrase (euphemized as "poop or get off the pot"), which is surprisingly recent, dating from the 1940s.
The phrase of course has had broad metaphorical use among non-fishermen (myself included). --- Answer from Carol: The phrase fish or cut bait is an Americanism dating from the 1800s, first used among fishermen.
The Dictionary of Americanisms defines it as 'to decide one way or the other'.
Cannon called for a vote in the House of Representatives to adopt a bill legalizing the silver dollar: "Now I want you gentlemen on the other side of the House to 'fish or cut bait.'" I do think that one of the basic meanings is 'to make a choice; choose a course of action'.