"Bayou Bill" Scifres
Dedicated to the conservation and enjoyment of Indiana's natural resources
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Copyright © 2004 by Bill Scifres
March (Written 2004)

The month of March is many things to many outdoor folks, including yours truly. But foremost on my March agenda is catching night crawlers and using them for fish bait.

I can't remember when I caught my first night crawler or when I caught my first fish on a night crawler. But in the ensuing years--probably more than 70 of them--I have caught so many of the slimy worms that the catch often was measured by quarts . . . even gallons.

In my early years on the two forks of the Muscatatuck River and their tributaries, night crawlers accounted for thousands of bullhead catfish, rock bass (a k a goggle-eye and red-eyes), other members of the sunfish family, and suckers. But as the years passed, the night crawler would prove its value as bait to me for such species as snooty brook trout, walleyes, bass (largemouth and smallmouth), rock bass and many other species of game and so-called trash fish.

In my book the night crawler is the All-American fish bait. But the guy who said, "Catching the bait is half the fun of fishing," was no dummy. Thus, from those warm March nights when the earth is moist and I sally forth with flashlight to catch the elusive crawlers, to those warm afternoons of murky water on above-normal streams, lakes or ponds the night crawler scenario unfolds before me. Sure, you can buy your bait at any bait shop, but catching your own crawlers and keeping them in good shape adds another dimension to fishing.

March is an especially good time to catch night crawlers for many reasons. First, warmer air temperatures take the frost out of the earth and bring spring rain. Secondly, in the cooler warm months--March, April and June--it is easier to keep night crawlers in captivity. But even in these cooler months, keeping night crawlers happy and healthy requires a good culture, in a good container, and a cool (not cold), dark place for storage.

So what, you may ask, constitutes a good culture, what are the qualities of a good container, and where should the crawlers be stored?
The best way to describe these facets of keeping night crawlers healthy and happy is to start by saying that while night crawlers thrive in a damp place (including the top layers of soil), a wet environment is not to their liking. For example, night crawlers are not rained down . . . they are rained up . . . out of wet soil.

Night crawlers are perfectly content in damp soil by day, coming to the surface of the earth at night primarily to mate. When they do this their tails usually remain in their burrows. 
But when the lop layers of the earth are saturated with water (spring rains), night crawlers leave their burrows entirely and scoot around the surface of the earth to mate and await better living conditions in the soil. This activity occurs mostly at night, but when daylight comes after hard rains night crawlers may still be on the surface of the earth--a smorgasbord for birds.

Picking up night crawlers that have been "rained up" on a wet, night  (warm or chilly) is easy because they have left their burrows. On a damp night, catching night crawlers is a contest.

The tools for this includes a flashlight with a good beam, a container to house the worms you capture, and a strong back. This activity dictates that the bait catcher do a lot of bending at the middle. To a point this is fitness at its best, but night crawler hunting spawns a lot of lame backs. I have known night crawler hunters who use a headlamp for crawler hunting, but I have always use a simple little flashlight. 

It is important to use a flashlight that offers a good, concentrated beam of light, but a very bright light can spook crawlers back into their burrows. Careless, jarring steps can do the same thing.

I have seen the beam of a strong light send crawlers that were protruding only an inch or two from the entrances to their burrows scoot back into the earth so fast that it nearly defied my sight. 

Contrary to the "grab-and-yank" method of catching crawlers that are only partially out of their holes, the successful crawler catcher uses stealth to make contact, and goes light on the pressure once the crawler is in hand (or fingers, as the case usually is).

If a night crawler is only partially out of its burrow, the best method is to shine the beam of the light slightly to one side or the other of the quarry. Then, with the index finger of the dominant hand (either hand will work), simply pin the crawler to the earth half an inch or so from the entrance to the burrow. This must be done swiftly and firmly because, the crawler will contract when you touch it. Just pin it firmly to the earth with the index finger of one hand, and grasp the head of the crawler firmly with the thumb and index finger of the other hand. By this time the light will be resting on the ground.

A healthy, husky crawler can be a momentary test of patience and strength, all the more so when you consider that the exterior slime favors the worm. Just maintain steady pressure (pulling too hard may break the worm). If steady pressure doesn't prompt the crawler to surrender in a few seconds, rub the under side of the worm (the tummy) with the index finger of the free hand. Incidentally, if you break the worm, keep what you have. Both parts of the crawler probably will survive and grow a new head or tail.

Old trousers and shirt are the uniform of the night for night crawler hunters. They eliminate the need for carrying a hand towel for an occasional cleansing of the hands. I have known crawler hunters who not only carried a towel tucked under their belts, but also kept a small pail of water handy. Frankly, my friends did not consider the slime of night crawlers an offensive thing.

When I was growing up at Crothersville (Southern Indiana), we did not have night crawlers in our lawn. But they were plentiful on the school grounds (four or five blocks east) and several of the houses adjacent to the school.

My dad, an ardent angler and total outdoorsman, suggested that we try to plant crawlers in our lawn when we had more than we needed for bait.

Being a keen observer of the habits of night crawlers, I tried to plant a few crawlers every night in the spring by making burrows in the soft earth with an umbrella shaft and prompting crawlers to back into the holes. I had some success with my project, but it was much too slow. I solved that problem by pushing a garden spade into the earth of my mother's rose beds and "planting" a handful of crawlers a few inches below the surface of the rich, loamy soil. It was an ideal new home for the crawler because my mother fertilized her roses with dishwater. 

In a year or two we had good numbers of crawlers in our lawn. We didn't have to wait for spring rains to bring them up. My dad could bring them up even on the hot, dry nights of summer by giving the lawn a good sprinkling. Eventually, though, a pet raccoon escaped his cage in the back yard and reverted to a wild state from his headquarters in our attic. The coon developed a taste for night crawlers and somewhat depleted the population of our little crawler farm.

So what are the elements of a good culture for keeping night crawlers happy and healthy throughout the summer?

Old metal washtubs that have developed leaky bottoms make an excellent home for crawlers. If they don't leak, punch a few small nail holes in the bottom. This will allow drainage of excess moisture, but will not allow worms to escape. Bait shops use boxes with wood sides and screen wire bottoms. Any large container, even those large five-gallon buckets that drain well, will work. A mouse-proof top is an important feature for chances are good that the container will be stored in mouse country. Rats are an even greater threat.

A dark, cool (not cold) corner of a basement or cellar is an excellent place to store night crawlers, but even in optimum conditions they cannot be ignored for long periods of time. Periodic checks of the culture and condition of the crawlers are important.

If the culture is too wet, add more of it--especially items that will retain moisture, but keep it under control. If the culture is too dry, sprinkle in some cool water, while sifting through the materials with the fingers.

It is not necessary to feed night crawlers over an extended period. Crawlers extract their food from the earth as it passes through their bodies. However, Rocky Haulk, one of my old angling mentors, would add some sour milk or cottage cheese to the culture in which he stored his bait. 

Decaying vegetable matter--everything from last fall's leaves to grass clippings, to compost--are ideal elements of culture. But these items should be mixed about 50-50 with, rich, damp soil. Shredded newsprint, the paper on which your newspaper is printed, is a good element of culture, but it should be used sparingly because the ink is a foreign substance to crawlers.

The $64,000 night-crawler question revolves around best way to fish this bait.

Actually, there are as almost as many ways to fish night crawlers as there are species of fish and seasons of the year.

My favorite way of fishing night crawlers for such species as bass (smallmouth or largemouth), rock bass, crappies, and other members of the sunfish family is a three-hook harness. This is nothing more complicated than three light-wire fish hooks of varying sizes tied on a five or six-inch piece of light monofilament line.

Two and three-hook commercially-tied harnesses are available at most fishing tackle shops. They come with or without spinners, which I consider superfluous window dressing.

I like to tie my own harnesses, mainly because I want a rig tied on light line (four-pound-test mono is fine), and I like hooks that are slightly smaller than most store-bought harnesses.

Getting the hook positioned on a piece of monofilament line is largely a matter of trial and error. I like to attach the top and middle hooks with nail knots. A clinch knot is fine for the bottom hook.

Using nail knots for the top two hooks can make positioning difficult so I tie them on first. Then it is fairly easy to bend the bottom hook on with a simple clinch knot.

The big secret to tying harnesses is to start with at least a yard of line. I tie the middle hook to the line with a nail or needle knot at about the middle of the line. The top hook is then attached with a nail knot. It is positioned in such a manner as to have the bottom (bend) of the top hook about half an inch above the eye of the middle hook. Then the bottom hook is tied with a clinch knot. It can be positions to suit the tier, remembering that it will be hooked near the tail of the crawler.

I like short-shanked wire hooks for crawler harnesses, but that is the option of the tier, more specifically the angler. I like a No. (size) 1 for the top hook, No. 4 for middle and No. 7 or 8 for the bottom. Wire hooks are important because they bend off when hooked to solid underwater objects and can be reshaped.

As dexterity escapes aging hands, it may be easier to tie harnesses on a small-diameter, silk-braided line. And, if push comes to shove in that department, a copper wire will offer good pliability. With copper wire, the knots can be eliminated by simply wrapping the wire around shanks of the hooks and running it back through the hook eyes. A half hitch toward the bend of the hook will keep the wire parallel to the hook's shank.

Now and then when I have found myself on the water without a crawler harness and the tool I use to tie one (a big-eyed needle), I have made makeshift harnesses with simple overhand knots for the top and middle hooks and a clinch knot for the bottom hook. They catch fish just as readily as harnesses tied with nail knots.

I fish crawlers on a harness much like I fish artificial lures, except the bait is moved more slowly than most artificial lures. Whether to use weight--or how much weight--is determined by how deep I want the crawler to run. Generally, though, I feel that weight takes away the natural drift of a crawler. However, that does not mean that a crawler fished with weight will not catch fish. I feel best about fishing crawlers on a harness when the bait sinks slowly. In still water weight of the hooks usually will take a crawler down slowly. If it is necessary to use weight to take my crawler rig down in moving water, a small split shot a foot in front of the rig usually will do the job, but even under these conditions I favor no extra weight.

There are, of course, many other ways to fish crawlers. Whole crawlers gobbed on the hook (hooked several times to hide the hook) will take channel cats and many other species, including bass and other members of the sunfish family. Hooked in this manner and fished tight-line style on the bottom is often effective, but the same worm suspended below a bobber often will take fish.

For goggle-eyes, and other species that lurk under shallow water cover, a method perfected by Dick Lambert, of the Old Mill Bait Shop on Indiana's southern Blue River at Fredericksburg, is very effective. Dick uses a small hook, a tiny bobber set to suspend the bait only a few inches below the bobber, a foot or so from the tip of a long pole (say a nine-foot fly rod). Dick pinches the crawler into small pieces that are dropped into tiny openings in brushy cover or around the edge of rocks.

With this rig, Dick can drop his offering into the tiniest opening in heavy cover. It is amazing how often the little bobber fails to stop when it hits the water.

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All columns, stories, and photos are copyrighted by Bill Scifres and may not be reproduced in any form without prior permission from the author's family.  For reproduction permission and media usage fees, contact: Scifres Family, 6420 East 116th Street, Fishers, IN 46038, E-mail: billscifres@aol.com

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