The Art of Worming for Trout

Learn the tricks used by an experienced angler when worming for trout, includes detailed fishing instructions, fishing equipment tips and a worm gang-tying technique diagram.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Editors
July/August 1982
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Diagram: Worm gang-tying technique.
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A beginner can succeed when fishing for trout in streams and small rivers by learning basic trout fishing techniques, includes worming for trout and a worm gang-tying technique diagram. 

"The old drunk told me about trout fishing . . . he had a way of describing trout as if they were a precious and intelligent metal. " (Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing in America.) 

There have probably been more words committed to print in praise of trout than have been set down in tribute to all other types of fish combined. And, likely at least in part because of the good press enjoyed by these members of the salmon family, many anglers—novices and old hands alike—avoid trout fishing . . . apparently thinking it's the type of sport that one can't be successful at without years of painstaking indoctrination and study.

That notion is an unfortunate one, too, because not only are trout delicious but—and perhaps more important—the experience of fishing for them (especially along streams and small rivers, which is precisely the kind of angling that this article will deal with) can be one of the most relaxing and soul-satisfying forms of outdoor recreation imaginable. Furthermore—although there's no doubt that continual practice, and study of the habits and habitats of these fascinating creatures, will result in ongoing improvements in an angler's skill, success, and enjoyment—there's no reason why a complete novice, using relatively inexpensive equipment and after only a day or two spent learning basic techniques, can't start right in catching trout . . . some of which might well be big enough to inspire the envy of folks who've spent years stalking the same streams!

TROUT FISHING: THE WORM TURNS

Almost anyone who's had even the slightest exposure to the mystique surrounding trout angling probably knows that fly fishing—that is, using artificial lures of fur and feathers that are designed to look like the insects and such that make up a trout's diet—is generally considered the highest form of the art. In fact, some anglers are openly contemptuous of folks who employ such baits as metal spinners, live minnows, grasshoppers, or even (one can almost hear the purists gasp at the very thought) lowly earthworms.

However, although fly fishing is both enjoyable to participate in and beautiful to watch (and should certainly be attempted by anybody who finds pleasure in angling), "worming" can, when done properly, be every bit as challenging as fishing with artificial flies (and often a dang sight more productive). The key word here, of course, is "properly". You see, all too many worm anglers show little or no consideration for either the demands of the water in which they're fishing or the fears and appetites of the trout they're trying to catch. Typically, the worming for trout technique used consists of little more than dropping a large night crawler—weighted with a hefty sinker—to the bottom of a spring-roiled river . . . and sitting back to wait for a trout to discover the offering.

That doesn't have to be the case, though. In fact, by simply being conscious of the sensitivity and skittishness of most trout—and trying to do whatever is necessary to minimize the chances of spooking them—the person who chooses to fish with worms can open a door to a world of angling that offers not only quick reinforcement, but also a lifetime's worth of room to learn and to improve his or her ability. To put it simply, this method can be reduced to choosing appropriate tackle, mastering the techniques necessary to use it with some precision, and developing "stream sense".

DON'T SPARE THE ROD . . .

Your worming equipment, first and foremost, must allow you to deliver that wiggler in such a way that it'll drift past the nose of a waiting fish, bumping along the stream bottom in the same manner that the worm would were it not attached to hook, line, and sinker. When choosing a rod-and-reel combination, then, comfort should be among your first considerations. After all, if you find your tackle difficult to handle, you'll soon become frustrated . . . and an irritated individual isn't likely to fish a trout stream carefully enough to avoid alerting the quarry long before it's within wormcasting range.

On the other hand, though, there are very great advantages to using as long a rod as you can manage with comfort. And since that piece of equipment should be limber as well as lengthy—both to allow you to play the fish with greater control and to give you the spring needed to flip a tiny worm through the air—the best choice is likely a fly rod equipped with a simple, inexpensive fly-fishing reel (which will generally do little more than hold the line in this sort of angling).

Happily enough, since the advent of the present state-of-the-art graphite fly-tossers, it's quite often possible to pick up fiberglass rods at very reasonable prices (the 'glass units were all the rage just a few years back, too, and should serve you well for both worming and, if you choose to try it, fly casting). The best bet is probably to visit a sporting goods store, where you can handle (and price) a few to get a feel for the length (8-1/2 feet is about all most people can comfortably manage over the course of a day's fishing) and flexibility that appeal to you. Then, if you're not too impatient to get out on the stream, check the local shopper tabloid—or even place a "wanted" ad of your own—until you find appropriate and inexpensive used equipment.

Bear in mind, though, that a fly rod is far from essential to successful worming. It'd be perfectly possible to make good catches on a simple bamboo pole with a crude reel attached (although a good bit of the pleasure would likely disappear from the sport if such insensitive gear were used). There'll be times, too, when the challenges presented by a specific stream will make it all but impossible to manipulate a long fly rod. For example, a lot of good trout are found in streams that are as narrow as 2 feet across and almost closed in by overhanging branches. An ultralight spinning rod of 5 to 5-1/2 feet long—equipped with an openface spinning reel—is about the only way to fish such waters without constantly tangling your line in the boughs.

THE BUSINESS END OF WORMING FOR TROUT

Since almost every step of the successful worm angler's technique has as its underlying purpose the need to avoid alarming the trout, it stands to reason that tackle choice becomes more critical as we reach the equipment that'll actually be in the water with the fish. Whether using a long or a short rod, a fisherperson can expect to get good results only with very light lines, tiny hooks and sinkers, and small worms.

Although water clarity—and the size of the fish you hope to catch—will certainly have some influence upon your choice of line, you'll hook a lot more trout if you stick to 6-pound-test (or finer) monofilament . . . with approximately 6 feet of lighter leader between it and your hook (try a 4-pound leader when the water is a bit discolored, but go down to a 2-pound on typically clear summer streams). Of course, the use of such delicate line means that you'll lose some fish and have to sacrifice a good many hooks and sinkers to snags and the like. But the truth is that if you're not losing any tackle, chances are you won't be catching any fish!

At the end of that delicate leader will be your hook, with a sinker affixed approximately 6 inches ahead of it. Probably the best terminal tackle combination possible is that described in an out-of-print book called Worming and Spinning for Trout (A.S. Barnes and Company, 1959) by a gentleman named Jerry Wood. Wood favored thin strips of lead for sinkers. These can be bought in many sporting goods stores, or you can make your own from the heavy metallic seals that can still be found on some bottles of wine. The value of the thin sinkers—whether purchased or homemade—is both in their adjustability (which allows the angler to add just enough weight to get the cast bait to the bottom, but not too much to prevent it from rolling along naturally once it gets there) and in the fact that they can be tightly wrapped, in a spiral pattern, around the line (which makes them far less likely to hang up on the bottom than would more conventional split shot). Jerry Wood also believed that the small bits of lead sometimes attract fish that mistake them for insect larvae!

While it's possible to purchase your sinkers ready made, you won't be using the most effective worming hooks unless you craft them yourself. Rather than relying on a single fishcatcher, you see, you'll want to be using a two-or three-hooked "gang" similar to those shown in the photo.

Fortunately, they're not hard to make . . . in fact, the most difficult part of the whole gang-fashioning project will probably be finding the right raw materials. You'll need to locate longshanked hooks of size 14, 16, or 18 (don't let the tiny No. 18's fool you . . . a good many hefty trout have been brought in on the almost hair-thin hooks). Since these are normally used by flytiers, try to find a shop that caters to the angling craftsfolk. And, if you're lucky enough to find 18's, buy several boxes . . . they're often pretty hard to come by.

Now, to make a two-hook gang (see the worm gang-tying diagram in the image gallery), take a pair of pliers or wirecutters and snip the eye of the hook that'll form the bottom of your wormholder. Then set that hook and an unaltered one aside while you cut an approximately 1 inch to 1-1/2 inch length of 6-pound-test line. Melt both ends of the scrap of monofilament to produce little knobs on the material . . . these will help hold the hooks in place. With that done, use a drop of clear nail polish to "glue" the two hooks to the piece of line, as shown in Figure 1.

Let the adhesive dry, and then—using fine "worm-colored" thread—wrap the shanks of the hooks to the line, as shown in Figures 2 and 3. When they're in place (try to get the wrapping as smooth and even as your fingers, eyesight, and patience will allow), tie off the protruding ends of thread (Figure 4), snip them, and coat your finished worm-gang's wrapping with another drop or two of nail polish.

Of course, there'll be times when you won't be able to prepare hook gangs, or perhaps even find a supply of lead-strip sinkers, in time for a fishing outing. In such a case, you can make do with the smallest gold-plated "salmon egg" hooks and the tiniest split-shot sinkers available.

Just as your hooks are small, so should the bait be. Try little (no more than 2 inches long) red wigglers, putting the forward hook at the head of the worm—preferably right below the collar—and the rear one just far enough down to keep the wiggler from balling itself up, but leaving at least a bit of the tail free. You'll certainly be tempted to try larger bait on occasion . . . and, especially when you simply can't get small redworms, there's no harm in experimenting. In general, though, the little wigglers will be easier to cast with a minimum of splash, and will look more like the worms that the trout are accustomed to seeing fall from the stream banks.

There are, of course, any number of other pieces of equipment that you could buy . . . including a creel (a wet burlap bag, tucked in your belt, will do), polarizing sunglasses, a net (it'd be necessary only for really big fish, and even they can usually be led to shore if you're patient), a fishing vest, a wading staff (just pick one up from the woods when you need to), and waist-high "wader" boots (an old pair of sneakers and snug pants won't keep you quite as warm, but you'll be surprised at how quickly cold water becomes tolerable when the fish are biting). It's probably best to start out with the least possible equipment—rod, reel, line, leader, sinkers, hooks, and bait—and then let your own experience teach you what else, if anything, you really need.

THE STORY OF THE STREAM

Entire books have been devoted to explaining the science of "reading" a stream or river . . . that is, looking at each section of water and determining the spots most likely to contain fish. You'll consistently find trout, though, if you simply keep in mind the environmental factors that are most important to your quarry: availability of food, access to shelter, shade (especially in the hot summer months), sufficient water depth (this consideration is taken all too seriously by most fisherfolk, however . . . given the other requisites, a large trout will be happy if it has enough water to cover its back), and (again, fish often break this "rule") current flow that's less violent than that in the surrounding water.

While every stream or river will present its own series of puzzles to the angler, you'll get a head start at solving the mysteries of your favorite waterway if you can at least recognize the more common "hot spots". Look first for any obstructions that cause an interruption in the flow of the water. A half-submerged log, a rock large enough to create an eddy, and a roil-bordered hole caused by a bend in the stream bank are all likely places to drift a worm into.

Furthermore, remember that the best spots to cast to are often those that are the most difficult to reach. Tangles of tree roots, underwater brush piles, and the like will cost you a lot of snagged hooks and sinkers, but they'll also occasionally pay off in trout that have survived years of angling simply because few people wanted to risk fishing in such imposing lairs.

THE STALK OF THE TROUT

Of course, being able to pick out the most promising areas along a river or stream won't do you a bit of good if you can't fish those prime locations without spooking any trout in residence there. There are essentially three ways to frighten one of the wary fish: [1] by letting it hear you, [2] by letting it see you, and [3] by letting it encounter your bait while the worm is moving through the water in an unconvincing manner (this last rule won't always hold true ... smaller trout, especially, sometimes seem to prefer a worm that's being pulled against the current).

As you begin to work your way along a body of water, then—moving upstream, unless it's absolutely impossible to approach a likely hide from that direction, since feeding trout typically face into the current—you must constantly be figuring how to present your bait in a natural manner to each likely spot . . . without getting within eye-or earshot of the fish.

First and foremost, move cautiously and deliberately. The angler who splashes upstream, or stomps and stumbles along the bank, will find strikes few and far between. Whether you're walking in the water or on shore, go slowly and—as you approach a likely spot—stand still for a few minutes before actually casting your worm.

Be aware, too, that as a result of light refraction and surface ripples, a trout views the out-of-water world through a somewhat restrictive window. This area of visibility will be roughly circular. Imagine a cone beginning at the trout's eye and expanding, at an angle of between 95° and 100°, toward the surface of the water. The circle formed by the top of that cone will be the surface area that (if the water is unrippled) the fish is able to look out of. By keeping your silhouette as low as possible (successful trout fisherfolk often resort to walking in a crouch or on their knees—or even crawling—to stay out of that window of visibility), you can often get quite close to a fish without alerting it to your presence. It's also helpful to wear colors that blend with the environment. Camouflage gear, for example, can be effective when you're working a brush-lined creek.

CASTING YOUR LOT

Once you've sighted a spot that's likely to hold a trout, then walked quietly to just beyond the fish's window, and waited for a few minutes for any small disturbance that you might have created to be forgotten . . . you're finally ready to offer your worm to the fish. There are probably any number of ways to cast that wiggler, but the easiest—and often most useful—method to learn is done with a simple sidearm motion. Just let the length of line that you'll need, up to an amount equaling the length of the rod, drift back behind you in the water (or swing it back through the air) . . . then point the rod tip slightly backwards and—as the current (or its own momentum) straightens the exposed line—use your wrist to flip the bait forward. (In situations where it's necessary to cast farther than a rod's length of line, simply coil the extra monofilament in your free hand and release it as the cast line flies toward your target.)

While the cast itself is fairly easy to learn, it is also the component of the worming technique that demands the most practice. A timid trout will often refuse to move more than inches from its lair. Therefore, if your bait is consistently landing a foot away from the spot you're aiming for, it may well be eyed by many fish but taken by very few.

Of course, there will be occasions when casting is either unnecessary or downright impossible. Sometimes, for instance, you'll find a target that's completely enclosed by streamside brush. In such a case it'll often pay off to thread your rod tip through the "jungle" and simply let the weighted worm drop into the current.

ABOVE ALL, ENJOY YOURSELF

Some people say that it's impossible to learn fishing from a book. And though the tips presented here will certainly—if practiced—catch fish where there are fish to be caught, they're not intended to be followed blindly. Be ready to learn from the stream you frequent, from the trout you catch (as well as from those you lose or only see streaking for cover after you've inadvertently spooked them), and from other anglers you encounter. Remember, too, that fishing can provide a rare and wonderful chance to study the ecology of a fascinating watery world . . . and that your impact upon that environment can either lessen or increase the pleasure that you, and others, will be able to find in the experience in the future.


THE QUESTION OF CATCH AND RELEASE

As a conscientious angler (and we'd assume that MOTHER-readers would be), you'll have to give some thought to the damage you might be doing to fish that won't end up on your dinner table . . . usually those that are caught and then released because they're too small. It's possible to reduce the harm that might be done to undersized trout in several ways. First, you might want to consider filing off—or crimping down with pliers—your hooks' barbs. Furthermore, whenever there's evidence of a strike (that is, if your drifting line stops, moves sideways, or does anything out of the ordinary), lift the rod tip to set the hook immediately . . . if you delay, you run the risk of gut-hooking a fish that's swallowed your worm. Finally, if you do land a trout that must be released, handle it as little as possible, and do so only with well-wetted hands.  

However, the fact is that many "rejected" fish swim off to die no matter how carefully they're dealt with. It has been speculated (in Richard S. Wydoski's study "Relation of Hooking Mortality and Sublethal Hooking Stress to Quality Fishery Management') that of all fish hooked and then released by anglers using live bait, 60% die. It's best, then—if your state laws permit it—to make up your catch from the first group of trout you bring in, regardless of their size, and to stop when you've got your limit . . . or better yet, to quit as soon as you catch enough to make up that next dinner. (After all, fish is a whole lot tastier fresh than it is after freezing, and a knowledgeable angler like you can always go back to the stream and bag a few more the next time your family hankers for a fish fry!)  

EDITOR'S NOTE: Since seasons, licensing regulations, size and bag limits, and allowable baits will vary from area to area and even from one section of water to another, make sure that you know the local laws before you set out on any trouting expedition! 


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