September 29, 2010
Even the most stubborn late-summer bass can't help but be enticed by a fat, juicy worm. Trophy bass anglers agree and turn to drop-shotting night crawlers to net big results.
"Good Lord! He'll show up with a coffee can full of worms. Red can -- Hills Brothers." -- Brad Pitt as Paul Maclean, "A River Runs Through It"
It's easy to see where Maclean, a lifelong flyfisherman, was coming from. I fly-fished the Big Blackfoot in Missoula, Mont., and an out-of-towner and his can o' worms could put a damper on the whole experience in a hurry.
This, however, isn't Montana, and we're not talking blue-ribbon trout rivers. The late summer season in the Golden State means one thing: big, hungry bass.
What's that got to do with a coffee can full of worms? As painful as it is to admit, if you want to catch monster bass, baiting up with live worms (gulp!) might be your best bet.
I wouldn't recommend night crawlers during the spring and early summer seasons in the Sierra Nevada, but when summer winds down there's nothing more exhilarating than landing a lunker largemouth, and it seems there's no better way to entice these stubborn potbellies than to wiggle a fat, juicy worm in front of them.
Whatever happened to the night crawler anyway? Back in the day, the worm was a kid's best friend -- a catch-all bait for trout, bass, sunfish, catfish and carp. Nowadays, night crawlers are about as in style as mullets and polyester, and that's a shame.
Fishing live bait might not be the trendiest approach in today's tournament-crazed bass world, but even legendary bass fisherman Roland Martin admits he's fished with live bait while tracking monster bass. Martin, who hosts the television series "Fishing with Roland Martin" and was recently named one of the Top 10 Greatest Anglers by Bassmaster, told a room full of anglers at the Fred Hall Fishing, Tackle and Boat Show that some of the best bass he's caught came on live bait.
"I've tried everything to catch trophy bass," he said in San Francisco. "I've caught them with night crawlers. I've even tried live crawfish. Some of the biggest bass I've caught came on live bait in situations where anglers had tried everything to fool these fish."
If live bait is good enough for a nine-time BASS Angler of the Year, you'd figure everyone would be chucking worms these days, but that's not the case. So why doesn't anyone fish with worms?
Anglers who believe in the worm point the finger at the corporate fishing world, which they say is stuck on fishing for big bucks -- as in dollars -- rather than behemoth bucketmouths. According to the American Sportfishing Association, 45 million U.S. anglers spend more than $42 billion a year on fishing tackle, trips and related services, with each angler spending an average of $1,046 a year on their craft.
In California, one of the three biggest fishing states (next to Florida and Texas), annual retail sales of fishing equipment has surpassed $2.4 billion -- with night crawler producing only a small percentage of those sales. The real money is being made on artificial baits. "Go-to lures" like the Castaic T Series swim baits, which can sell for $125, or the Waking Hard Bait by 3:16 Lure Co., which sells for $150.
Night crawlers? Well, worms are lucky to bring in $2.49 at the bait shop around the corner from your favorite fishing hole, but they can net the same big results as swimbaits. Just ask trophy bass hunter Chris Wolfgram of Suisun. He's caught five double-digit bass and loads of 8- and 9-pounders on night crawlers over the years.
"My biggest is 14.1 pounds," he said, "and it was a fish that everybody had thrown every artificial lure they had to, for more than a week with no success. She was completely spawned out, too, some 28 inches long. She should have been over 16 pounds.
"Night crawlers work, I just think they're looked down upon because of corporate brainwashing. Too many people let others make up their mind for them."
I first stumbled across drop-shotting 'crawlers two summers ago while sight-fishing late in the season at Lopez Lake near Arroyo Grande. Thanks to sizzling temperatures in the 100s, the bass were stubborn as could be. I tried everything in hopes of provoking a strike -- tube baits, crankbaits, swimbaits, minnows, jig-and-pigs, buzzbaits, poppers, spinner baits and every style of plastic my pocketbook, and sanity, could afford. No such luck.
On a whim I switched to night crawlers, and my luck changed immediately. Even the most dogged bass couldn't resist a drop-shot worm. By the end of the week I had caught the biggest bass of my life -- a 14-pounder.
"I think 'crawlers will work anywhere worms get washed in the water," Wolfgram said, "which is basically everywhere."
Night crawlers can be fished anywhere successfully, although they're fished best this time of year near old spawning grounds or mouths of feeder creeks.
While I've had loads of success fishing night crawlers at Central Coast lakes like Lopez, Santa Margarita, San Antonio, Nacimiento, Casitas and Cachuma, Wolfgram has done most of his damage fishing gobs of 'crawlers on his home lake, Berryessa, and San Pablo Dam Reservoir.
"I believe that bass -- and nearly every other freshwater fish -- are conditioned to eat 'crawlers right from the start," Wolfgram said. "During every rainy season, millions of them are washed into nearly every lake in the country. They're high in protein, have no bones or spines, and take practically no effort to catch -- pretty much the perfect snack. Even when a bass has gotten big, and now eats mostly trout or maybe crawdads in the pre-spawn, they often cannot get past that biological imprint on their brains which says, 'All good, easy, safe.'"
Depending on where you fish, a medium-action graphite spinning rod with 10- to 20-pound Spiderline Super Mono XXX line are good bets. If you're going for double-digit bass, use a 20-pound-plus braided line.
The two basic components of a drop-shot 'crawler rig include a round drop weight on a quick-clip system, and a small, light-wire worm hook tied with a Palomar knot. For a hook, I typically tie on a Gamakatsu G-Lock hook (1/0 to 5/0) about 36 inches from the weight when fished in water up to 15 feet deep. The best way to hook the worm is through the head, stringing the length of the hook through the 'crawler.
Weather conditions, water clarity and depth determine the amount of weight to use: In late summer, try a 1/8-ounce weight up to 15 feet; 5/32-ounce up to 25 feet; and 3/16-ounce for anything deeper than 25 feet.
If fishing at depths greater than 15 feet, pinpoint where fish are holding on your finder and adjust your rig.
Another technique requires a 6- to 10-inch strip of black elastic line, which I tie off between the weight and the 3-foot leader to the hook. Adding an elastic strip allows you to put even more action on the worm without having to drag the weight across the bottom, keeping the worm in the strike zone until the angler decides when to tug it out.
For starters, flip down your polarized shades and study the shallows for holding bass. The best time to do this is in the early morning on stretches of the water in full sunlight.
If you spot a nice bass, or see a section where bass could be holding, cast over the area a good 10 or more yards (even if it means casting onto shore to avoid startling the fish). Retrieve the rig in a series of short, slow pulls no more than a few inches at a time while keeping your rod tip up.
Once you're near the fish, slow your retrieve and work the bait in front of the fish's nose. The key is to keep the worm in the strike zone as long as possible, manipulating the rod tip with a slight twinge of the wrist.
Getting down the "doodling" method of working a drop-shot rig can take time and practice, but once mastered, it's an approach that even the most finicky bass can't resist.