July 08, 2020
By Ken Duke
We call them plastic worms, but what do they really represent to a bass? It's almost certainly not actual worms. Earthworms and night crawlers don't find their way into the water often enough to be a regular forage item for bass. Aquatic worms that actually live in the water are rarely more than an inch in length, and none of these creatures come in "green pumpkin."
Do bass think plastic worms are snakes or eels? That seems a lot more likely. But if that's true, we're mostly fishing baits that are too small to mimic such prey.
The most accurate assessment might be that bass have little or no idea what these plastic creatures are, and they don’t care. All that matters to a bass is that the thing is slow enough to catch, small enough to eat and meaty enough to make a meal. And in the summer, when bass metabolisms are high, bigger is often better—especially when your target is giant bass.
THROW IT FIRST
Bass Pro Tour legend Paul Elias earned an enviable reputation with the big worm after winning a 2008 tournament on Falcon Lake with a four-day total (20 bass) of 132 pounds 8 ounces. Whereas some top anglers throw the big worm in conjunction with other lures, most notably crankbaits, it is often Elias’ first choice.
"When the water temperature is in the 80s or higher, I always have a 12-inch Mann’s Jelly Worm rigged up," he says. "And I’ll start with it for a couple of reasons. First, I can fish a Texas-rigged worm through just about anything without getting hung up, so I can often catch bass in a spot where other lures would snag and disturb the area. Second, the single hook in a plastic worm gives me a much better chance of hooking and landing a big bass than the treble hooks on a crankbait."
Like other pros who advocate big worms for summer bass, Elias finds most of his hot-weather lunkers offshore, on main lake humps and sharp drops in 10 to 25 feet of water. If there’s also cover on such structure he knows it has potential, and he immediately reaches for the big bait.
"I like a 12-inch Jelly Worm in Junebug for dingy water and Watermelon Red in clear water," he says. "If I’m Texas rigging it through cover, I fish it on 23-pound-test Balsax White Peacock Fluorocarbon line with a half-ounce slip sinker and a 6/0 worm hook. I throw it with a 7-foot 4-inch heavy-plus-action FX Custom Rods casting rod and an 8.3:1 Bruin Elias Legend Series casting reel.
"Summer bass are usually pretty active, so I’ll fish the worm aggressively, using four- to five-foot hops."
If there’s not much cover on the structure he’s fishing, Elias rigs the big worm Carolina-style trailing a 1-ounce sinker. He fishes the C-rig on a 7-foot 10-inch heavy-plus FX Custom Rods casting rod and 7.5:1 Bruin casting reel spooled with 50-pound-test Balsax Bass Braid main line and a three-foot leader of 27-pound-test White Peacock Fluorocarbon. He drags this rig instead of hopping it, wanting the big sinker to roll around on a hard bottom to give the bait more action.
"One thing you have to do with the big worm is hesitate before setting the hook," Elias says. "After I feel a bite, I like to wait until I feel the fish moving with it before I set."
THROW IT DEEP
Keith Combs is a Texas pro who has won tournaments all over the Lone Star State, but he insists that the big worm is effective nationwide. When the weather heats up in summer, he keeps one rigged and ready on his front deck.
"In the summer, my favorite pattern involves finding sharp breaks in six to twenty feet of water, depending on water color," Combs says. "If the water’s dirty and visibility is low, I’ll fish shallower than if it’s clear."
These break lines can be caused by channel bends, bluff walls or anything else that creates such structure. Combs is less concerned about the nature of the break than he is about finding brush or other cover on it. If there’s a sharp drop, he figures there are bass nearby. If there’s cover, he knows it will concentrate the bait and the bass.
"This is a pattern that often works early in the morning even though it’s a deeper water bite," he says. "I like a big plastic worm for this because it moves a lot of water and triggers bigger fish."
Combs’ worms of choice are the 10-inch Strike King KVD Perfect Plastic Bullworm and Rage Thumper in Plum or Red Bug. He Texas-rigs them on a 5/0 Owner Offset Shank, Wide Gap worm hook and weights them with a 3/8- or ½-ounce Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten slip sinker. His line is 20-pound-test Seaguar InvizX fluorocarbon that he spools onto a Shimano Curado DC casting reel mounted to a 7-foot 5-inch heavy-action Shimano Zodias casting rod.
Since his target is a fathom or more beneath the surface, Combs often casts so that his bait lands right in the cover. As a result, he expects a strike on the initial fall and prepares to set the hook before the big worm reaches bottom. If that doesn’t happen, he’ll hop the worm until he feels it contact cover. Then he keeps it there as long as he can stand it, shaking it in that spot.
"When you feel the cover, you can bet a bass is nearby," he says. "When when you feel the bite, set the hook hard and don’t stop reeling until the fish is in the boat.”
A key to Combs’ summertime success with the big worms is that he identifies several locations with potential and rotates through them as the day progresses. "The bass may not be active in one spot, or they may not be on it when you’re there," he says. "But if you’re on the right spot at the right time, you can get well fast."
THROW IT LAST
The big worm is often the right choice when targeting summer lunkers, but 2019 Bass Pro Tour points champion and Redcrest winner Edwin Evers likes it even better as a backup bait.
"Beginning around the end of May and going right through the summer and into fall, I like a big worm as a follow-up lure for offshore fish that have been hitting a deep-diving crankbait."
When he’s looking for bites, it only makes sense that Evers wants to cover lots of water fast, and few baits do that better than a crankbait. When the crankbait action slows down and a different tool is needed to mop up the rest of the bass in an area—particularly the biggest, most wary fish—Evers says nothing is better than a big worm.
"In the summer, I’ll catch a lot of fish on a crankbait," Evers says. "It’s great for active fish that are feeding, but after those fish have been caught, I go back in with the big worm and often catch the best fish in the area. That’s particularly true when there’s cover on the spot that’s just too gnarly for a crankbait."
Evers’ favorite bait for this big-worm pattern is a Texas-rigged 10-inch Berkley PowerBait Power Worm in Black Blue Fleck or Red Shad. He fishes it on 17-pound-test Bass Pro Shops XPS 100% Fluorocarbon tied to a 5/0 Berkley Fusion19 Offset Worm Hook behind a ¼- to ½-ounce Bass Pro Shops XPS Tungsten Worm Weight. His rod is a 7-foot 6-inch Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Carbonlite 2.0 casting model, and his reel is a Bass Pro Shops Platinum Signature baitcast reel (8.3:1).
"I also like to use a glass bead between the sinker and the head of the worm," Evers says. "The big worm moves a lot of water, but I also like the extra noise that comes from the sinker hitting the bead."
It took more than five years for an angler to record a 10-pound largemouth in a modern bass tournament. Once it happened, though, the floodgates opened.
Modern tournaments began in 1967 with the All-American on Beaver Lake in Arkansas, but it wasn’t until the 1973 B.A.S.S. Florida Invitational on the St. Johns River that a double-digit bass hit the scales.
After a 10-2 on the second day of that event, seven more bass weighing better than 10 pounds were weighed in on Day 2. Leading the way was Bob Tyndall of Greenfield, Missouri, with a 12-pound 13-ounce leviathan that struck—you guessed it—a big plastic worm.
The 13-inch "Hawg Hunter" that Tyndall was throwing was made by J.W. Lures of Jacksonville, Florida, and featured two built-in 5/0 weedless hooks. Bobby Wilkes, the "W" in J.W. Lures, said after the tournament, "A lot of people laughed and called it a joke when we first started fishing it. But those that tried it, liked it. They either caught or hung the largest bass of their lives."
Tyndall’s historic lunker stood as the biggest in B.A.S.S. history until 1997.
GO BIG OR GO HOME
Despite the recent resurgence in finesse soft plastics, like the Ned Rig, there are still plenty of companies pumping out big worms. In addition to Mann’s, Strike King and Berkley, most plastics manufacturers produce worms in excess of eight inches, and many make them longer than 10 inches.
But if you really want to go big, try the 15-inch NetBait C-Mac Curly Tail Worm, the 16-inch Gambler ER or worms measuring 20 inches or more from River Slung Custom Baits (830-719-9907), Upton's Custom Baits and B.S. Custom Baits. These individual lures often contain more plastic than entire bags of conventional worms.
Of course, they’re not for everyone, and a 20-inch worm might scare more bass than it tempts, but who wants to catch timid bass? If you get a strike on one of these monsters, you can bet it’s worth setting the hook. And what bass fisherman worth the salt in his worms, his quarry nearly in range of the net, hasn’t dreamed of uttering the words, "We’re gonna need a bigger boat!"
YOU’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER HOOK
If you sling big worms, you’re going to tangle with giant bass. Having a hook capable of handling big bass is as important as the size of the worm itself. Going toe-to-toe with an oversized fish demands that you’re well-armed.
When selecting a hook for big worms, there are two vital considerations: gap and gauge. Gap is the distance between the hook point and the shank. This measure must be at least twice as wide as the worm is thick so the hook point can punch through the plastic and into your lunker.
Wire gauge is equally critical. A “finesse” or “light wire” hook will straighten out when paired with heavy line, a heavy-action rod and a formidable bass. As such, you need a heavy-gauge or flipping-style hook when fishing super-sized worms.
One of the best in the business is the Gamakatsu Heavy Cover Flippin’ Hook. It has a wide gap and is fashioned from very heavy gauge wire.
One last tip: when shopping big hooks, buy size 5/0 or larger. — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn