Out, See, Go: Find your own worms

By Chris Engle, contributor

The summer installment of Michigan’s Free Fishing Weekend has come and gone but I have a way you can still save money if your fishing budget is tight and you don’t mind mingling with the creepy-crawlies around your house at night.

On June 13 and 14, fishing license fees were waived in a twice-a-year effort to get people, who otherwise aren’t bigtime fishermen, on the water and enjoying the sport in the hope they’ll eventually buy a license and keep fishing. It’s a great program and kudos to the state for doing such a thing.

I’d like to see four Free Fishing Weekends a year instead of just once in the summer and once in the winter – spring and fall in Northern Michigan offer their own unique fishing opportunities like spawning runs which could get more new fishermen hooked.

But back to my point about saving money: I just spent a bunch of cash giving my boat some much-needed renovations and I’ll be operating on a tight budget the rest of the season. I thought I’d share what I’ll be doing to make sure there’s enough money left over to put beer in the cooler.

My mom taught me how to pick nightcrawlers when I was about 10 years old. Late that night, hunched over our flashlight beams, she and I filled up a plastic Cool Whip tub with more than a hundred worms. Realizing we’d gone a little haywire with our picking, we kept a couple dozen for fishing and dumped the rest in her rose garden.

I use the terms “nightcrawler” and “worm” interchangeably but I’m talking about earthworms – the big, fat Canadian kind you buy by the dozen from the bait shop. “Worms” are the smaller annelids you find under logs and are too fragile for my tastes when it comes to threading them on a hook. Still, some trout and panfish anglers prefer skinny worms over nightcrawlers. I am not one of them.

Nightcrawlers are an essential part of a healthy lawn. They aerate the soil as they tunnel through it, eating organic matter and breaking it down into nutrient-rich castings which feeds grass and plants. That’s why we dumped our surplus worms into the rose garden and mom had beautiful roses for years.

This is important to keep in mind as you roam your lawn picking worms: Don’t hit one spot too heavy or you’ll risk depleting the soil there. Move around, hunt leaf piles and wander into your neighbor’s yard if you have to. (Just kidding. Please don’t get shot for stealing your neighbor’s worms.)

Picking worms is all about technique and requires stealth, speed, keen eyesight and cat-like reflexes. You’ll also need a headlamp and some sort of container – the Styrofoam boxes worms come in at the store work best, especially if you keep the dirt once you’ve used up the worms.

One more thing: You’ll have to wait until at least 10 p.m. to start picking because that’s when the worms emerge to look for mates on the surface.

I was in marching band in high school and one of the skills drilled into our squad was “roll stepping,” a style of walking where your shoe rolls smoothly, from heel to toe, to eliminate any bounce in your step. We learned it for parades and halftime shows and now I roll step my way around the yard because even the slightest sound will send the crawlers scurrying back down their tunnels.

Flashlight beams will also startle worms into their holes so keep your headlamp on low and hunt with the outer edge of your beam. You’re looking for a worm’s glistening body and shining your spotlight for more than a second will spook them away. I’ve found that red LEDs work great, so does taping some red plastic wrap over the flashlight lens.

The bigger nightcrawlers can stretch 10 or 12 inches across the ground and the more body they have exposed, the easier they’ll be to catch. Their one defense is that they keep the other half of their body tunneled into the ground and will retract in a split second once they’re grabbed or startled, so reflexes are really important.

You’ll need to grab at the base of the worm’s body where it’s coming out of the ground. Grabbing at their head – the thick part with the ring – will result in a miss or, worse yet, breaking the worm in half. See my awesome hand-drawn diagram?

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Sometimes it just helps me to draw a picture instead of illustrating an idea with words.

Once you have a firm grip, the battle begins.

Worms have tiny hairs along their body which dig in to the sides of their tunnel. Worms are surprisingly strong and will fight for their life in a game of tug-of-war with your fingers. Much like fighting a big fish, you’ll have to tire the worm out and give it slack when needed. Having your drag set too tight with a monster fish will result in a broken line. Same goes for picking worms: Pulling too hard will break it in half, so be patient and fight it out.

Make sure your container has something in it that worms like. Wet grass or moist soil works best. A small container should only hold a dozen worms at a time, so get more containers if you need more worms.

I have one final point and word of warning: Worms are emerging to the surface to mate. Those little rings around their body near their head? That’s where their sex organs are. By midnight they will start coupling, pressing their rings together and wrapping themselves in slime. They’re no fun to pick when they’re doing this and, besides, you’ll be spoiling their fun too.

Good luck and happy picking!

Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and stay-at-home dad who lives in Hayes Township, Otsego County. He can be reached at englemobile@gmail.com.