When we were in our early teens, my older brother Jim and I used to sneak out of bed at 4 a.m. on summer mornings to go trout fishing. It felt forbidden, secretive, and slightly dangerous, which made it glorious fun. I hope some kids today still do it. If so, they’ll need this primer on a critical part of the fishing ritual: gathering the bait.
Some people think you go fishing for trout with worms, but that’s strictly bush league. We used nightcrawlers. To call them worms would be an insult – worms are pink, small-bore, garish wrigglers. (See Margo’s blog on worms in apples.) Nightcrawlers, on the other hand, are lumbering logs of plump, purplish flesh that slither along the ground, regal and snake-like. Catching them required that we be nightcrawlers too – around 11 o’clock at night, after the day’s heat had dissipated, and the dampness that would be the morning dew was just starting to coalesce on the grass. Jimmy and I would grab a couple of empty coffee cans, and head for our friend Steve’s backyard. The yard was deep and dark, and there was a broad expanse of lush grass where nightcrawlers thrived. We would kneel down a few feet away from each other, each with a coffee can stationed by our side, and gently place our hands down on the ground in front of us. You had to be careful even then because if you came down too hard you might find one right under your hand, and be rudely reminded that they’re just tubes of juicy guts. Needless to say, when they burst, the mess sometimes travels straight back up into the face of the human crawler who caused the calamity.
Catching them was tricky. Once touched, the nightcrawler contracts as if electrocuted, instantly pulling its body back into its hole in the ground. The trick is to pinch its body between your fingers and your thumb as soon as you feel any movement under your hand. You have to pinch quickly, before its entire greasy body snap-slithers back below ground, and firmly enough to arrest its movement, but not so firmly that you pinch it into two pieces. Half a nightcrawler is a sad and useless thing – it wriggles blindly for a while but quickly withers to an inert purple stub in your bait can.
Once you firmly grabbed a crawler, you had to wait patiently. The worm would eventually start contracting back in the direction of the hole it started from, and that would tell you the direction you needed to pull to effect the extraction. If you pinched and tugged too soon, you might be pulling the wrong way, and only hasten the nightcrawlers’ journey home to its hole Every millimeter it got back into the ground made it less likely you’d be able to pull it out whole again.
Occasionally you’d come across one that was fully out of the ground, and you just picked it up, twisting and slimy, and dropped it into the can with the others. Other times, only an inch or two of a five-incher was protruding, and you pinched at air as the tip ducked from your grasp. For the rest, you waited – pinching firmly while waiting for the worm to tip its hand (so to speak). As soon as it pulled one way, you tugged in the opposite direction, maintaining firm but steady pressure on its plump body. Eventually, the worm would tire and its resistance would fail. Then the nightcrawler would lay slack, exhausted, and you could pull its entire length from the hole. In the can he would go, and you went back to gingerly patting your hands ahead of you in the dark grass.
On a good night it took us less than an hour to gather two dozen nightcrawlers – plenty for a morning of trout fishing. But we never put more nightcrawlers in the can than we needed for the next day of fishing, because catching them required that we understand them, and with that came, strange to say, a measure of respect for their right to live.
They taught me a valuable lesson, too: when life grabs you really hard, the direction in which you pull; the person or place you reflexively retreat to, is home.