Even people who know nothing about fishing know that worms will catch fish. It’s as cliché as it gets in our sport, so let’s just go ahead and move past it: Open a can of worms and you can expect to catch a fish in the freshwater environs of North America, be it trout, bass, walleye, bluegill, crappie, catfish, carp, pike, or countless others. If a fish fry is on the line, you can often count on a crawler to deliver the goods. Similarly, when tricky species like walleye are being difficult, it’s helpful to have that ace up your sleeve.
Dismiss that as rote basics if you want. I don’t personally fish live worms all that often, but I have a high degree of respect for their importance to fish diets and efficacy in catching fish. Nightcrawlers, earthworms, bloodworms, and numerous other annelids, chironomids, nematodes, and aquatic insect larvae with long, thin bodies are prevalent in freshwaters. Many fish species seem hardwired to consume objects with such a profile. That’s valuable information for a lawnchair bobber angler, a tournament bass competitor, and a fly fisherman alike. We improve as anglers the more we understand fish.
Like most other things fishing, nuance, finesse, and attention to detail make the difference between the great and the lackluster. Worms are not slithering silver bullets. Fish them well and save the day. Fish them poorly and you’ll soon run out and arrive back at square one. Here are a few ideas for upping your worm game, whether they're living, plastic, or chenille.
Thread The way you attach a worm to the hook is the most consequential decision with this bait type. Live worms are fragile. They rip and tear easily and won’t remain on your hook long if you just poke them through in a couple places and call it good. A haphazardly rigged worm also won’t ride very well if there’s any current or a moving boat involved. A bunched-up gob of wigglers may not be off-putting to sunnies and cats, but other species are more discerning.
Threading a worm on the hook or on the line is a good way to maximize its seductive profile and simply keep the damn thing from getting robbed or falling off. A lot of tackle is designed for this purpose, from the basic baitholder hook with barbs on the back of the shank to worm harness rigs either with double-snelled octopus hooks or modern trolling hooks with long, bent-shanks like the VMC SpinDrift or Mustad Slow Death. Threading a whole worm onto the leader with a specific (or nonspecific) needle is an esoteric but occasionally useful tactic as well.
A nightcrawler has a front end and a back end. This may not matter so much for stillwater or passive fishing situations, but it can make a difference in others. The collar or band around the body is located on the forward half, which is often more round. The back, or tail, is usually flatter. Thread a worm on your line through the front first so it runs right in the water. Trolled with a weight and spinner blade, a harnessed worm is nearly unbeatable for walleye, kokanee, and trout.
Inflate Blown-up worms might seem like a bad joke to many anglers, but that’s dead-serious stuff for certain communities like British carp fishermen and folks on highly pressured trout or walleye waters. Presentation is important with passive bait fishing methods. Getting your offering up off the bottom makes it a lot easier to see and possibly smell, especially when there’s any amount of vegetation or muck. Fish may be more likely to grab something in their line of sight that they don’t have to root out.
Everyone’s grandpa had a worm syringe in his old rusty tackle box. They’re still sold everywhere for a couple bucks. A hypodermic needle for medical or veterinary purposes works well too. Simply insert the tip under the worm’s skin and pump in a little air. It doesn’t take much to make a worm floating or neutrally buoyant.
Maintain Dead and dried-out worms do catch fish, but not nearly as many as lively, luscious ones. One mistake I’ve made myself many times is not paying attention to my baited hook when moving between spots or distracted by getting a fish in the cooler. You can take a note out of the offshore bait angler’s book and dunk your worm in a livewell or bucket when it’s not in action or simply take it off and start fresh. There are few things worse for your gear’s appearance and function than desiccated worm guts melted to the rod and reel.
On the same note, don’t leave your worm box open or in the bright sunlight. Keep them in the cooler when it’s hot out and don’t be afraid to save your leftovers in the fridge for a week or two. You can pep up some older worms with a spritz of water on their dirt.
Mimic Derisively known as the “dirt snake” throughout Western fly fishing culture, the San Juan Worm is so hated mostly because it works so damn well. Many folks call it cheating, but I’d be willing to bet that most of them still have a few carefully hidden in their fly boxes for when a Hail Mary is required. I’m personally fonder of the narrower, faster-sinking Wire Worm but the concept is the same. There’s also a time and place for the ridiculous-looking, ridiculously effective Squirmy Wormy and other monstrosities that are actually convincing immitations for real trout forage. Seems enough like matching the hatch to me.
It goes well without saying that “worms” are typical fare in the bass fishing world, but the ways these soft plastic lures are presented are more evocative of leeches and minnows than actual earthworms. And I don’t know why this works so well, but I’ll admit that I’ve caught many of my biggest native steelhead on bright pink rubber worms. This might be an odd and gaudy offering to a fish of such prestige, but you can’t argue with results. Worms and worm-like patterns and presentations are common for fishing striped bass, tarpon, and countless other pursuits as well.
Suffice it to say that worms and worm imitations are foundational to recreational fishing. Lay your own strong foundation of piscatorial knowledge and there’s no limit how high you can build.