By Leon Archer
When I was a kid, I learned to capture, care for and use fish worms.
The capturing and the using I enjoyed, but the caring for worms could be a bit of a pain. I learned early on that you couldn’t just gather a bunch of night crawlers and leave them in a bucket with a few leaves and expect that they were going to live happily ever after.
Nothing smells worse than a container full of dead worms. By trial and error, I learned to keep both the worms and my long-suffering parents happy; I learned the art of worming.
The art of worming consists of two distinct, yet vitally connected parts. The first part is the catching and caring for the worms. The second part is using the worms most efficiently for fishing.
I can’t prove it, but I firmly believe that the number one bait of fishermen, at least in Upstate New York, is the lowly worm. That’s probably why we kids called them fish worms.
More refined folks called them angle worms for the same reason. As long as they were available, they caught just about every kind of fish a kid wanted to fish for.
I even went so far one year as to nurse a few of them along in our basement until the ice was safe for fishing. I thought they might just be the magic bullet on hard water, but although they caught fish, they were no better than the minnows and jigs that we used.
The effort was hardly worth the returns, but other times of the year they were easy to procure and deadly on the fish.
Now when I say worms, there were two main types that I used for everything, night crawlers and what I call rain worms. I majored in night crawlers, but I didn’t ignore the smaller rain worms.
Night crawlers were easy to catch every spring, requiring only a flashlight, digital dexterity, and knees and a back that could stand an hour or two being bent over. On a good wet spring night, I could pick up 200 to 800 worms. It all depended on how wet I was getting and how soon my body started grumbling about the abuse.
I had several large, leaf filled boxes in the basement of our home. Each one was capable of holding up to a thousand worms safely for a long time, but in reality they came and went on a regular basis. I sold night crawlers and my father and I used plenty of them as well.
It wasn’t quite as simple as dumping them in and taking them out; there were certain chores connected with worm ranching.
After a few weeks, the remaining old leaves and worm castings had to be removed and new leaves put in the boxes. The removed residue was great for the family garden, but if left too long in the boxes before being replaced, it became toxic to the inmates.
If maintained properly, the worms were happy and my parents were happy.
It was extremely important to remove any dead worms or even those that did not act very lively. Usually dying worms would come to the surface of the leaves, but not always, so as I took worms out for sale or use, I was constantly on watch for the dead or dying.
When I did change the leaves in a box, I counted the worms into a bucket, allowing me to keep track of my inventory, before returning them to their refurbished home.
When picking up night crawlers, inevitably some will be broken as they are pulled from their burrows. Usually I dropped them back on the ground where most of them would survive if they got back underground. The others ended up feeding the robins the next morning.
If I knew we would be fishing in the next day or so, I would keep them, but sort them out when I got home. It was very unwise to try to keep them with the other worms. I tried to never put a damaged worm in the boxes; it was just asking for trouble down the road.
Rain worms are a different story. Because of their smaller size and very pale pinkish color, they were the very best worms for fishing for small brook trout. They were tougher and stayed on the hook better than a night crawler, which made them a pretty good bait for pan fish that could often rip a piece of night crawler off the hook without paying any penalty.
There were many times when a rain worm would do a better job than a night crawler.
I usually picked rain worms up off driveways, roads and sidewalks early in the morning. I also dug them. They are found in much larger numbers than night crawlers when digging worms.
I never tried to keep any great number of them, but they did very well in smaller containers with soil in the bottom and a layer of leaves over that.
Fishing with live worms is an art as well; one size does not fit all. Worm fishing for pan fish and small trout was the easiest; simple and straight forward, small worms and small hooks but larger species each had their own likes and dislikes when it came to worms. Big night crawlers became the go to bait, but how it was hooked made a difference.
A number 2 hook baited with a whole night crawler was our basic bait for bullheads. We wadded it up on the hook in small folds, going in and out the length of the worm. If much was left hanging off, the bullheads would just tear it loose and be gone. Rock bass were always eager to take a similar bait. Black bass, on the other hand wanted the worm loose and flowing, so we hooked them once or twice near the collar band of the worm. With walleyes, we hooked the worm as near to the head end as was feasible.
Rainbow and brown trout were the fussiest. The worm needed to look natural and whole. Part of a worm was usually ignored, and a worm bunched up on the hook like one was fishing for bullheads was a no starter right from the get go.
Most of my worm fishing for larger trout was done in the spring or after a heavy rain in the summer. High roily water increased one’s odds considerably. I almost always used a single snelled number 6 hook below a willow leaf or Dixie spinner.
The spinner caught the fish’s attention in the cloudy water, and as they homed in on it they would grab the night crawler. It was a deadly combination.
Even today, my favorite bait is the lowly earthworm. I still catch them and use them successfully. I know it is still cold and the snow cover is tenacious, but before long it will be time to start harvesting those wonderful night crawlers, and when that happens, spring fishing will be close behind.
Time for the art of worming.