Worm Dirt

I guess I officially became a pariah in 1992. Once that damn movie A River Runs Through It hit the big screen, I was done for--and nearly forever. A staunch worm fisherman for years, I was banned from the bow seat in McKenzie drift boats. No one would sell me felt-sole waders. Even my daughter wouldn't let me Texas-rig her bass worms. From there it was all downhill…until now When the economy turned south about a year ago, my friends' general attitude toward me--the "wormin' meat fisherman"--changed. Folks who once stood proud mid-river casting tight loops and invisible-to-the-naked-eye Light Cahills suddenly discovered I was regularly putting good fish on the bank with worms, split shot and even bobbers. I was smiling, too. Yep, in some angling quarters, fishing with worms has suddenly got glamour. Well, maybe not gild and glitter, but some "purist" folks have noticed that if they want to consistently put fish in a skillet, not much can trump the simplicity and effectivness of plain old dirt-diggin' crawlers. Maybe it's because an earthworm is so democratic in its appeal. Worms tempt trout without peer. They blister bass--largemouths, smallmouths and spotted ones, too--and wallop walleyes. Panfish are pushovers for red wigglers. And there isn't a catfish alive that can resist a crawler crept past its whiskers. But there's a saying: "Everything is simpler than you think, yet more complex than you imagine." And it's especially applicable when it comes to fishing with night crawlers. Keep these half-dozen quick-hitter tips in mind this season.
In the world of earthworms, there is perhaps no one more knowledgeable than South Carolina's "Worm Expert" Bruce Galle. Through his various websites (orderworms.com; thewormexpert.com; organicwormfarm.com), Galle sells hundreds of pounds of worms online each week. From red wigglers, African nightcrawlers, European nightcrawlers, Alabama Jumpers and mealworms to Purina Worm Chow and worm farming supplies, Galle ships hundreds of pounds of worms to fishermen, gardeners and worm farmers each week. Here are some insights on various worm species from the Master Wormologist himself:
Red Wigglers: "Adults are smaller than most crawlers, but make great bait," Galle says. "Also known as the red wriggler worm is a prized composting worm when it comes to food scraps, however for castings, there is one prized over the red wiggler, African nightcrawlers. "The red wiggler worm can eat half its body weight per day or 3 1/2 pounds of food scraps per week per pound of worms. Red wigglers eat many types of nitrogen based food scraps such as vegetables, fruits, melons... They should not be fed tomatoes, lemons, oranges etc. due to the acidic levels within them. "Red wiggler worms can be fed Purina Worm Chow as a primary diet if you prefer or used as a supplement due to the nutritional value which is loaded with assorted grains, minerals and vitamins to help raise fatter healthier worms. "They are easily raised indoors or outdoors in worm bins at a temperature range of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit."
African Nightcrawlers: "An extremely heat-tolerant worm that can grow from 6 to 8 inches," says Galle. "It's an excellent big-fish bait." "African Nightcrawlers can eat half its body weight or more per day of food scraps and will eat many types of nitrogen-based food scraps such as vegetables, fruits, melons... however make a better manure worm or simply raised in peat moss with food supplements. They should not be fed tomatoes, lemons, oranges etc. due to the acidic levels within them. They are usually raised in carbon based bedding such as shredded newspapers, cardboard and peat moss. "African Nightcrawlers can be fed Purina Worm Chow as a primary diet if you prefer or used as a supplement due to the nutritional value which is loaded with assorted grains, minerals and vitamins to help raise fatter healthier worms. "The African Nightcrawler is the most heat tolerant worm we carry! They are easily raised indoors or outdoors in worm bins at a temperature range of 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit."
European Nightcrawlers: "A good worm for use in brackish and cold-water fishing situations," according to Galle. "They eat half their body weight per day." "European Nightcrawlers also known as Super Red Worms. European Nightcrawlers are a fisherman's choice when it comes to live fishing worms and run approximately 3 inches long and can get as thick as a pencil. "They are easily raised indoors or outdoors in worm bins at a temperature range of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit."
Alabama Jumpers: "Jumpers are an extra-lively worm that's tolerant or warm water," says Galle. "Alabama Jumpers wiggle like crazy hence giving look tempting to most freshwater fish species. They also stay on fish hooks well thanks to their tough skin. In my tests, Jumpers seemed to get hit harder than other worms when fished under a popping cork."
Fine-Tune Your Worm Fishing With the right gear in the right hands, worm fishing is not only highly effective, it is an art form. It also presents many of the same challenges as flyfishing.
Foremost is the need for a drag-free drift. The key to worm fishing in moving water
-- be it brook, stream, or river -- is
to present a bait that tumbles naturally
along the bottom, where trout spend most
of their time. Too much weight, and the
worm sits unnaturally on the bottom; too
little, and it is swept above the fish.
 And as with dry flies, a worm skidded
across the current on a tight line is
more likely to alarm trout than elicit
strikes. The easiest way to achieve a natural presentation
is to cast quartering upstream, using just
enough weight so that you can barely feel
the sinker ticking bottom as it slowly drifts
back downstream. Slack line is recovered
at the same pace that the bait tumbles back
toward you, and the rod tip is held high
to minimize the effect of other currents
on the drift of the bait and to help detect
bites. When a bite is detected -- either
through the telltale tap-tap of a taking
trout or by seeing the line move upstream
-- the fish should be promptly fed slack
line so it can mouth the entire bait, including
the hook. You should either drop the rod
tip and reach toward the fish or immediately
flip open the bail on your spinning reel.
Either way, after a pause of one to three
seconds, the slack line should be recovered
and the hook set with a snap of the wrist.
The larger the bait, the longer the pause. When
Less Is More Worm fishing also resembles flyfishing
in that worm fishermen must tailor their
offerings to the conditions at hand. The
most common mistake is to use too much
bait. As a rule, the amount of bait used
should steadily decrease as the season
progresses and the size of the stream
decreases. 
Early in the season, especially on large
rivers that hold trout measured in pounds,
an entire 4- to 6-inch nightcrawler might
be called for, although far better are
"dillies," plump, 3- to 4-inch crawlers
that are weeded out by many commercial
bait dealers and sold separately to trout
anglers. On smaller streams, or as river
levels drop, half a crawler or a 2- to
4-inch garden worm is a better choice.
On low, clear waters and tiny brooks,
half a garden worm is called for, while
larger baits are needed whenever a hard
rain raises water levels. Whole worms should be hooked in the middle
so that the ends hang free -- never ball
up worms on a hook. Worm pieces should
be threaded onto the hook starting at
the broken end. In all cases, use as small
a hook as is practical, ranging from size
8 for big nightcrawlers down to size 12
for garden worms and smaller pieces. Weights
should be small and easily removed, with
eared, size BB split shot the best all-around
choice. The addition or removal of a single
split shot can spell the difference between
success and failure, and expert worm fishermen
constantly adjust the amount of weight
on their line to match the depth and current
of the water being fished. Low-memory,
low-diameter monofilament line, either
2- or 4-pound test, also helps achieve
a natural drift by offering less resistance
to moving water.
How-To: Happy Hooking
Two simple ways to bait your hook Gob Your Worms
This wholly unrealistic-looking worm presentation is a great way to foil the habits of tail-nipping panfish. First hook the worm through its collar, or clitellum, then re-wrap and impale the hook through the worm once again, leaving a short tail trailer for added enticement.
Coat the Hook
Threading a night crawler on a bait hook allows for a more natural appearance in the water and better longevity. Lightly pinch the worm's head between your thumb and index finger and impale the hook point through its mouth and through the length of its body. Leave a short trailer.
Worm Fiddling For generations, Southern practitioners of "worm-grunting" or "worm-fiddling" have coaxed large fishing worms above ground by making vibrating sounds rubbing steel bars on wooden stakes that are driven into the earth. Most never questioned why the system worked. They just were glad it did. New research reveals that for decades, backwoods worm-grunters have actually been tricking the lowly earthworm into thinking it was being chased by its primary predator, and that's why they appear above the ground--almost like magic. After extensive research performed in northern Florida earlier this year, Vanderbilt University biological sciences professor Ken Catania concluded that the vibrations made by the "grunters" who rub steel bars over wood stakes actually mimic the sound produced by digging moles. In reaction, the worms quickly crawl from their burrows to escape their approaching natural predators. Practiced historically and passed down among generations of worm-gatherers in the South, the custom is colloquially referred to as "grunting" because the of sound made by rubbing metal on wood, or "fiddling," in reference to the physical motion that resembles pulling a bow over the strings of a violin. Despite a lot of speculation, generations of worm grunters were never really certain exactly why the technique works--just that it brings the very large (and desirable) earthworm Dipocardia mississippiensis to the surface by the hundreds so they can be collected and used (or sold) as bait. Biologist Catania, whose specialty is studying moles, first thought that the explanation behind the phenomenon was contained in a theory put forth by geneticist Charles Darwin, who once said, "If the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms will believe that they are pursued by a mole and leave their burrows." To investigate Darwin's concept, Catania traveled to the Florida Panhandle this spring and enlisted the help of noted worm grunters Gary and Audrey Revell.
During his study, Catania actually recorded the vibrating sounds made by burrowing moles and compared them to the sounds produced by the worm grunters. Analyzing geophone recordings of the two types of sound, he found that the worm grunting vibrations were more uniform and concentrated near 80- hertz, whereas the moles produce a wider range of vibrations that peak at around 200-hertz. "The moles are quite noisy," Catania said. "Often you can hear the sounds of a mole digging in the wild from a few feet away," he said. Whether it's called fiddling, grunting (or even snoring or charming), the technique is still used in certain parts of the southeastern U.S. today, though it probably reached its peak during the 1960's in Florida's Apalachicola National Forest. At that time, hundreds of commercial gatherers grunted for worms before the U.S. Forest Service began requiring permits for the previously unregulated practice out of concern that the industry was impacting the native worm population. "This is a fascinating biology story and a fascinating sociology story," said Catania, whose extensive study and findings were recently published in the scientific journal PLoS ONE. "The biology story is the question of why the worms behave as they do and the sociology story is the fact that hundreds of people once made their livelihood by collecting worms in this unique fashion."