In 1983 or so I found myself smack dab in the middle of my first flux. Somewhere in between for or against things that seemed important. My first issue as a 14-year-old Idaho Falls kid was most likely different than most dudes. Not so much chasing chicks or trying to fit in and deal with pubescent issues. Mine was my first heartbreak. The first time I both loved and hated the worm. As a budding young Southeastern Idaho little dude I grew up on worming. I could sneak up and put the slow pull on some Idaho trophy's with a flashlight in June and shock em up the rest of the season. I Caught a bunch of fish on a free supply.
But in 7th grade or so I bought my pops a fly tying kit for Christmas that I took over by New Years. I'd done some casting and a little catching the summer before. Needless to say, I jumped into fly fishing hard. So, of course, the woolly worm was one of the first flies I attempted. And the kit pretty much was limited to tying several. By the time spring hit, I was ready. Every hook had, chenille, feathers, and a shitload of thread and glue wrapped on them lined up in a brand new Scientific Angler dark grey foam and plastic jewelry box. It was tucked in my sweet new Columbia Fly vest with three sizes of tippet and my first line cutter besides my teeth. I was ready to catch fish on the ol south fork.
It was cool fishing familiar water with a new approach. Woolly worms made total sense to my young mind. I'd caught plenty of fish on worms and should be easy peasy. Best of all, no more sneaking around barefoot in the cold wet grass with a flashlight at midnight catching bait. I had moved on. Bye-bye dirty ol baitfishin. Hello Fly Fishin.
After a few trips, a shitload of tangles and snags, and a new respect for those of the fly I found myself torn for the first time. I wanted to catch fish on a fly I tied so bad and it seemed impossible. But I knew I could walk back to the car and grab the spin rod and wack em. However, that was beneath me now! I was a fly fisher and no longer dredged filthy worms on spin rods with split shot. But why was I getting my ass kicked on a "Worm Fly". I even tied em in brown with no hackle. Still nothing on anything in my cool new fly box. I hated worms. Over all the years of guiding, teaching fly fishing and running fly shops, I've met many worm haters. They have tried but never had success with "worm flies". Many have been very good fishers with plenty of experience with lots of different fly patterns on many different waters.
I was one of those anglers whom had tried but failed at wormin. That was until I got lucky and landed a guide gig in 1996 on the Missouri River over off Wolf Creek in Montana. The River was big and flat with some decent dry fly fishing. But when nothing was hatching, I got my ass kicked.
Thankfully I met an older guide at the Frenchmen bar and grill whom had had one or six too many cocktails one evening and he spilled his guts on fishin the mighty Mo. Ya gotta fish the "chamois worm" deep and off the edges of islands and dumps he insisted. He even gave me a couple in the parking lot at the end of the night. The "chamois worm" was just what it implies. Red chamois leather strip tied to a big ol curved hook. I caught a lot of fish on the ol worm after that on the Missouri. However, my guiding career in Montana was fairly short as I had landed a job on my home river. The South Fork of the Snake.
There was not much demand for worm flies or really any nymphs on the south fork in the 90's. The dry fly fishing was incredible. Most guides including myself prided ourselves on dry fly fishing pretty much all the time. That was pretty much all ya needed as the river had prolific hatched from early June through September nearly every day. Dry or die.
Then, one June morning I found myself working a group of four clients with another guide. The group needed to be off the river early and wanted us to fish them on the very top section of the river that was closer to our lodge. Unfortunately for me my "dry or die" program wasn't working, the water up there was still under 50 degrees and no hatches had started yet. It was a bluebird day and was going to be tough to produce fish.
I slipped over to the other guide and mentioned my concerns that we were about to have a rough go and maybe we could talk em into heading farther down stream for better action. Brenda Sweeney had spent time in Kansas City as a chef and was fairly new to guiding the South Fork. I figured she would go along with trying to implement plan B. However, she said that she had been fishing the upper in the past week and had great success on San Juan Worms. I'm sure the look on my face was interesting to say the least. Worms? I knew how to fish worms. Only problem was where could I get my hands on some in the next 30 minutes. Back then you couldn't find a San Juan Worm within 50 miles of our lodge. No body fished worms so nobody sold worms. Thankfully, Brenda had plenty and worm fishin on the river that day was great. Now days you can find every cool new worm pattern and then some at every fly shop on the South Fork.
Like many of us, I do as much research as I can on anything relating to fly fishing. So, of course, I have learned quite a bit about worms over the years. There are many types of worms that are important to fly fishers. Terrestrial worms are important as rivers bulge and banks collapse in spring months. Tiny midge Larva look just like little worms and are available year round as forage for fish. But the big picture focuses on Annelids or aquatic worms. There are many species of annelids present in most bodies of water that many of us anglers are not familiar with and each have their own unique attributes. Here are a few things to note.
Annelids have similar life cycles to insects. They begin as a fertilized egg deposited in the water. They feed and mature in the water for a period of time and eventually become sexually mature and seek out other mature worms to mate. So they "Hatch" if you will. The cycle continues over and over. The question is when do they hatch? Species vary in when and how they mate but some are worth noting. The "horsehair" or "gordian" worms get their names from their appearance and actions. Horsehair worms were thought to resemble long horse hairs found in watering troughs in the early days. They were long and thin much like the hairs from a horses main and perplexed folks on how they got into the horse troughs.
These particular Annelids require a terrestrial host such as a grasshopper or shore bird that steps into the water in which the Larva live. They enter the host by burrowing through the host skin and the mature inside the host for days or weeks. Then, when sexually mature release an enzyme into the host that tells the host to return to the water. At this time the worms burrows out of the host and enters the water to locate a mate. Crazy!
Gordian worms are named after the famous Gordian knot ball created centuries ago by ancient civilizations as a child's toy. This is because of the ball that these worms form during mating. They gather in large clusters and can be tumbled down stream in slimy wads of protein. Just think of the caloric feast in one of those worm balls.
The most important thing I've gathered over the years about worms is that full moon phases tend to be peak times for worm fishing. Even during major hatches such as the famed "Salmon Fly" hatch I've had amazing worm fishing if they occurred during full moons.
Other productive worm opportunities are a bit more obvious. Warming spring days and rising rivers introduce tons of earth worms into river systems and can be the best way to take high water trout. Focus your efforts along crumbling banks, drop offs and the slack water at the end of flooded islands. Larger offerings such as the "Bullwhip" or "Atomic Worm" patterns tend to work best during spring runoff. I have tied and effectively fished worms as long as 5 inches in many colors during spring runoff. While Red and pink tend to be my go to color most of the time. I've tied purple, brown, orange and black with good results.
Although worms can be rigged many ways, we prefer the "Vertical Rig" first shown to me by fellow guide Zac Peyton and Darren Puetz. Years ago. The basic idea is to rig a 4-6 foot butt section of 30-50lb leader with a loop knot connecting a ThingamaBobber at the end. Then, I attach a 2X or 3X tippet section with an improved clinch knot directly around the butt section. The tippet knot slides down the butt section to the loop knot holding the indicator. This forms a 90 degree angle from butt section to tippet. The system is not only easy to rig, cast and adjust as needed. But does not kink a long tapered leader. It sinks fast because the tippet is small compared to a tapered leader and multiple flies can be fished. The loop knot allows the indicator to float free without the drag created by being clamped to a long leader. In short it is deadly for worm fishin.
So if you find yourself hating the worm, try fishing the vertical rig in the spring and during full moon phases this season. Patterns and pre-tied vertical rigs are on our site and in the shop to get ya going.