Appreciating rubber worms

by Gord Ellis | June 17, 2022
Rubber Worms and steelhead

For about as long as there have been plastic lures, there have been rubber worms made for fishing. It’s truly amazing just how many different species of fish will eat rubber worm, from largemouth bass to steelhead to pike and panfish.

Since native earthworms were removed by the last glaciers in Canada, you have to wonder about the hard-wired attraction fish have for them.

Humble beginnings

The earliest rubber worms were rather crude and nothing like the soft, yummy ones we have today. The first time I used rubber worms, they were likely borrowed from my father’s tackle box. It was the 1970s and we were on a canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park. Smallmouth bass fishing was always on the menu. Normally, I’d use a live crawfish, but we were on an island and it was steep sided, with no opportunity to catch crawdads.

So, an old school rubber worm was slipped onto a #4 Carlisle hook. This worm had the consistency of a pencil eraser and was not super life-like. However, I tossed the rubber worm over the edge of the island and watched its slow descent. The worm had only dropped a few feet when a dark shape appeared, and the light-coloured bait disappeared. The hook was set, and soon a fat smallmouth was skipping across the lake surface, doing its best to shake the hook. The nice bass was landed, that drab looking rubber worm still in place and looking no worse for wear. This was my first lesson in both the effectiveness of rubber worms and the resilience they have on a hook. For someone used to the constant loss of live bait, the nearly bulletproof nature of the rubber worm can be a revelation.

Bass tourneys provided boost

When I began a two-decade fascination with bass tournaments, the rubber worm became a fixture. I didn’t really know how many rubber worms there were until I started fishing bass seriously. It was a whole different world. The sheer volume of choices was overwhelming. Luckily, as a smallmouth angler, there were fewer options, and the typical worm was smaller than the snakes I saw largemouth anglers using. The next generation of rubber worms was a world away from what I’d used in Quetico. These bass worms were soft, came in a wide variety of colours, and were scented, salt impregnated, or both. These worms did not look anything like an earthworm. In fact, they didn’t really look like anything a bass would naturally eat, with the possible exception of a leech. Yet, put a four-inch pumpkinseed coloured worm on a light slider jig head and magic happened.

My late friend and fishing partner Sandro Fragale loved rubber worms for walleye fishing. He had a special fondness for bright pink Berkley Power Nightcrawlers of about six inches in length. He would use these worms as replacements for regular live nightcrawlers on multi-hook spinner trolling rigs. One time at a walleye tournament event in Hearst, he nearly created a stampede at the local Canadian Tire when he showed a couple of the local anglers his secret weapon. You could not find pink rubber nightcrawlers anywhere in the northeast for quite some time after that.

Speaking of large, pink rubber worms, a weedless worm of that colour — or anything bright — is strong pike medicine when lipped through shallow reeds and weeds. Pike will inhale a worm fished this way, often in spectacular fashion. Fishing weedless worms in super shallow water will take big pike when nothing else does.

They catch trout, too

As a trout fisherman, I grew up fishing with live worms. Garden hackle was the favoured term. I’d guess most of us started our fishing journey this way. Yet, for some reason, the appearance of realistic rubber/plastic worms had little appeal to me where trout were concerned. That began to change when I saw local steelhead anglers catching nice fish with bright orange, red, green, and pink worms.

Not wanting to be left out, I picked some up.

Rubber worm changes

The steelhead worms smelled kind of funny, felt slippery, and didn’t look like anything a steelhead would ever see. Maybe that was the point. Anyway, long story short, one morning, on a river with high, discoloured conditions, I decided to try a steelhead worm. This was not the greatest situation to try something new, especially when nothing else was working. Yet on went the worm, in sort of a wacky rig way, and out went the float. The float cocked, snaked its way along the current seam and disappeared. There was a bit of a delayed reaction, as my brain processed the missing float, but instinct kicked in and the rod was arched up. The feeling of a large trout pumping at the end of the line never gets old and it’s even more satisfying when an experiment pays off. That steelhead had no hesitancy eating that weird-looking orange worm.

Another change in the rubber worm world has been the appearance of biodegradable products. Rubber and plastic can hang around the environment for a while and can park in fish bellies. So, where possible, I’ve been using products that will break down more quickly. The cool thing about the biodegradable worm is they feel gooey, slimy, and lifelike, like the real thing. They also hang on the hook impressively, which reminds me of that old rubber worm in Dad’s tackle box way back when.

In the fishing world, the rubber worm will always have a place.


Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay. Reach Gord at: mail@oodmag.com, Twitter: @GordEllis

Originally published in the June 2021 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.

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