By Pat Miller
Anatomically, the nightcrawler is a simple creature. Nature has designed it to be an excellent excavator that enjoys nibbling on the dirt during its subterranean travels.
Unfortunately for the worm, however, it has also become a staple food source for many insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and even fish.
“I think you can catch any kind of fish on a crawler,” said Travis Peterson, who is among the elite anglers in the Bemidji area. “The primary target species are definitely panfish and walleyes, but if the nightcrawler goes past a trout, bass, or a pike, they are probably going to grab it, too.
“And they are the perfect bait for kids,” Peterson said. “I think kids are sometimes as entertained by the bait as they are the fish and the fishing. Kids like getting slimy and are definitely intrigued by a dozen worms in a container.”
Fish also are intrigued by the nightcrawler, and a worm can be the bait of choice when a simplistic approach is in order.
“I think a big part of why they work so well for fishing is their smell,” Peterson says. “They put off a lot of scent. They also have a unique action. When you’re using a full crawler and it stretches out, especially for walleyes, it really doesn’t have any action to it. And there is something about that do-nothing action that the fish like. I think the fish are intrigued.”
“In the clear lakes that we have (in northern Minnesota), that visual appeal is a definite plus,” he said. “It’s a very natural presentation, a natural color. It’s not fake, it’s not a crazy color. It’s the real deal. And you can catch fish like crazy on crawlers in deep water as well as the shallows.”
Fishing with a nightcrawler can be as simple as threading it on a hook and plopping it into the water. But crawlers also work well when combined with live-bait rigs, jigs, and spinners.
“There are many different ways to use them, different applications, but what you’re really doing is putting meat on a lure,” Peterson said. “The way we all probably started fishing was using a worm on a plain hook under a bobber. Most of us started with panfish as kids with a bobber rig, and worms were the easiest thing to find. We didn’t have to pay for them, we just turned rocks over and found our own angle worms. Or we went out on those rainy nights and found a few nightcrawlers.
“With worms in our pail we would go fishing and we discovered that worms were dynamite for panfish,” he said. “Bluegills love them. Rock bass love them. You’ll catch a few crappies on them. Suspending a worm under a bobber on a small hook or a small jig is probably one of the most common panfish techniques of all time and is something that all of us have done. That technique also works for walleyes, and fishermen are also using crawlers under slip bobbers for walleyes as an alternative to leeches or minnows.”
Walleyes can find it difficult to resist a crawler that tips a live-bait presentation. In certain situations, this technique can quickly put fish in the livewell.
“The traditional way to fish a crawler is to use it on a live-bait rig with a walking sinker, a leader, and just a plain hook. That’s a technique that has been used for many, many years,” Peterson said, adding that breaklines and structure elements are key locations where a slow troll or drift works the best.
“Crawlers really work for this application and have for a long time,” Peterson said.
Another technique that has become popular in the past 10 to 15 years, according to Peterson, is fishing a crawler in shallow water and in vegetation, such as cabbage weeds, rigging the worm like you would a live-bait rig: using a light bullet sinker ahead of the worm and moving fast through the vegetation. You also can forward troll and use a long line behind the boat and actually fish off the bottom through the cabbage. You might be fishing in 8 feet of water, but the presentation may be down only 4 feet.
“Those fish that are living in vegetative flats are not always hunkered right next to the bottom. They can be up in the water column ambushing prey within the cabbage weeds,” Peterson said. “As the crawler comes through, walleyes come up and get it. This is a popular technique in our Midwestern lakes right now.”
A spinner tipped with a crawler is one of the go-to walleye presentations in the Upper Midwest, and a vigorous troll or retrieve will improve the chances of getting a bite.
“I usually use a spinner rig with two hooks, with the front hook going into the nose of the crawler and, after you stretch the crawler out, you get that second hook somewhere in the middle of the worm,” Peterson said. “I usually use that behind a bottom bouncer. And the key is to keep moving.”
Peterson likes to travel 1.5 to 2 mph, and he makes sure that enough line is out to enable the bottom bouncer only to make bottom contact.
“The key is to keep moving. Put the boat in gear and go, because this is definitely a reaction strike,” he said. “The nice thing about this is you can fish at any depth. You can fish it in 5 feet or you can fish this way in 30 feet.”
At times, the versatility of the crawler teams perfectly with the versatility of the jig, and this simplistic setup can be incredibly effective.
“Just like you would with a jig and minnow, a great walleye presentation is to use a crawler on a jig,” Peterson said. “I usually use half a crawler and thread it onto the jig like I would a plastic worm, and it’s amazing how many fish you can catch this way. This is a presentation that, I think, doesn’t get used as much as it should. The convenience of nightcrawlers is something jig fishermen might be missing out on. They think they have to use a minnow all the time, but half a crawler is pretty deadly.”
So is the slow-death rig.
“Basically, it’s a live-bait rig but instead of a conventional live-bait hook, you use a slow death-style hook, which has a longer shank with a bend in the hook that makes the crawler spin through the water column,” Peterson said. “The spinning gives the bait a different look and offers some action that is totally different than if you just rigged it on a regular hook. The spiraling action makes the worm’s tail ungulate and, for me, it looks a lot better than a straight worm.”
He added that the technique works well in shallow water behind a bullet sinker or in deeper water with a bottom bouncer, and his preferred speed is between 0.7 and 1.0 mph.
Peterson also noted the recent movement toward spinners with flexible, butterfly-style soft-plastic blades.
“The advantage of that style of spinner is that you can move quite a bit slower and the blade will still spin,” he said. “It gives the fish more time to see the bait and react to it. It’s a little more of a finesse technique, a little less flashy and more subtle, and it definitely is less intimidating than your conventional spinner with a metal blade.
“I think the clearer the water, the more subtle you need to be to get those strikes. You don’t want the fish to have a super good look at the presentations, especially if it’s not real natural,” he said. “The conventional metal spinner blades work well later in the summer when you get more algal bloom, and they work well in Western reservoirs where there is more muddy water conditions. But on our clear lakes, there has been a trend toward the slow-death rig with no spinner or toward the butterfly-type spinners that are more subtle.”
Just as anglers have a variety of options when it comes to bait, fish have a variety of items on their menu. Unfortunately for the nightcrawler, it’s included on both lists. No matter the season, fish will be attracted to the crawler, and the wise angler will take advantage.
“Crawlers have always been readily available, they are fairly economical compared with the price of minnows, and they catch just about any species of fish,” Peterson said. “In many situations, they are the perfect bait.”