The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 21, 2012

Cross: The good and bad of nightcrawlers

By John Cross
Free Press Staff Writer

— I’m not one to look a gift fish in the mouth, but on a large South Dakota lake and nearly a mile from the nearest shoreline, a thought came to me as I extracted a hook from the walleye that moments earlier had gobbled up the nightcrawler I was using for bait:

Why would a walleye caught way out here even consider eating a worm?

A fish cruising a shoreline or riverbank might run across night crawlers washed into water and associate them with something edible, but I wondered if the nomadic, open water walleyes we were targeting had ever seen a worm.

A best guess is that a walleye snaps at a worm mostly out of instinct, simply striking at something dangling tantalizingly close to its nose.

Whatever the reason, there probably isn’t a freshwater angler who hasn’t at one time or another drowned a worm or two, hoping to fool a fish.

As cash-strapped youngsters, we would prowl yards and gardens with flashlights following a rain and gather them by the dozens for our own fishing bait as well as to fuel our budding entrepreneurial spirits.

For years, a plywood sign nailed to the boulevard elm tree advertised them at a quarter a dozen.

Earlier this summer, before rains got to be such a scarce commodity, my frugal nature inspired me to once again try my hand at gathering my own ’crawlers.

I was quickly reminded of a few key points of successfully hunting them.

The first is that one must tread lightly and catch them only in the fringe of the flashlight beam, lest they sense the vibrations and illumination, disappearing quickly back into their hole.

The second is that the stalk-and-stoop method really is a youngster’s game. My 60-year-old back was aching after just a couple of minutes.

But the snatch-and-grab method is pretty low-tech anyway.

It was possible a half-century ago to buy a gadget, one regularly advertised in the outdoor publications of the day, that used electricity to drive worms out of the ground.

The gadget basically consisted of two probes joined by electrical cord and a plug-in. The probes were driven into the ground and then plugged into an available outlet.

The current running through the ground forced the nightcrawlers to the surface where they could easily be  gathered.

Of course, it was a simpler and undoubtedly less litigious time back then.

The combination of electricity, open circuits and damp ground suggest a certain inherent peril and probably one reason the commercially made units no longer are being sold.

But a quick query on the Web regarding “using electricity to catch nightcrawlers” revealed that the method, albeit with homemade devices, is still popular.

In a nod to safety, many of them use a car battery or if available, an old hand-cranked field generator rather than household current. Rubber gloves and boots also are recommended.

But there’s an even more intriguing, certainly safer, method of gathering fish bait.

Known as worm charming, worm grunting or worm fiddling, the method supposedly drives worms of all kinds to the surface by creating vibrations that mimic those of a digging mole, a worm’s mortal enemy.

With variations, the process involves driving a stake into the ground and then creating vibrations by dragging a saw’s teeth across the stake’s end.

There are even competitive worm gathering events using this method, where contestants are judged on how many worms they can charm from the ground within an area during a prescribed time.

The current world record was set by 10-year-old Sophie Smith who tallied 567 worms during Britain’s World Worm Charming Championships in 2009. Seriously.

Methods of capture and virtues as fish bait notwithstanding, here’s one final thing about worms:

The ubiquitous nightcrawler — and every other worm now found in Minnesota — is an invasive species, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Prior to the settlement of Minnesota, there were no naturally occurring worms of any kind to be found in the region.

It is believed that worms were brought here through dirt and rocks that ships used as ballast and from the soil brought over by European settlers.

What’s more, the seemingly innocuous worm really isn’t harmless. Worms can improve the soil under some circumstances, but they also can damage woodland areas by consuming the duff and loose material vital to seedlings, ferns and other forest floor plants.

So while dumping unwanted worms on the ground around lake access sites at the end of a fishing excursion might be convenient, it also is illegal.

We’re required to put ‘em in the trash instead.

John Cross is a Free Press staff writer. Contact him at 344-6376 or by e-mail at