You would be hard pressed to find a more effective or widely used fishing bait than worms. Spring through Autumn, both nightcrawlers and red wigglers help anglers catch boat loads of fish.
So why then, does it seem like crawlers and red worms get the boot come ice fishing season? I hear all about using waxies, maggots, spikes and minnows to catch everything from crappie to walleye. Yet, few anglers talk about baiting up with earthworms.
But don’t be fooled.
You can use worms for ice fishing and they are extremely effective for trout, perch, walleye, crappie and other species of fish. While it may not be the primary winter forage for fish, worms should not be over looked by anglers as one of the top live baits for ice fishing.
Worms may not be the secret weapon you were looking for, but we are going to lay out the facts and give you all the information you need to increase your success while using them.
Why ice anglers don’t use worms
The majority of ice anglers live in northern states that get absolutely pummeled by deep snow and sub-zero temperatures. With that in mind, ice anglers probably don’t use worms because of limited availability. Not because they don’t make good bait.
Nightcrawlers are worms that come to the surface at night. Obviously, two feet of snow makes that impossible. They also usually die off in the winter and next year’s worm population arises from eggs laid in the fall.
Likewise, red worms or “wigglers” are found in composting material. Again, winter frost and snow limits your ability to collect them.
That means your only choice is to buy them. The problem with that is they aren’t always available in stores during winter months. Even if they are, a dozen worms might cost over $3. For the same price, you can get several dozen maggots or wax worms.
On top of that, large worms need to be cut into smaller chunks for tipping lures or baiting tiny tungsten ice jigs. With cold hands, most anglers don’t want the mess and small baits like wax worms are easier to use.
By now you’ve probably noticed that ice anglers aren’t avoiding worms because they don’t catch fish. Instead, it is all about practicality.
Why you should use worms anyway
If worms are so seldom used by the majority of ice anglers then why should you use them? Why not just try what everyone else is using?
It’s simple. Use worms and your bait becomes the novel bait beneath the ice. Fish get used to looking at worms during open water season because everybody and their uncle uses worms then. But during ice fishing season, you’ll be one of few anglers using worms.
That means in pressured areas with finicky fish, a worm might be the ticket to entice a strike.
Of course, if everyone starts using worms your advantage will slip away but for now that’s not the case. Put in the effort to get some worms and dare to be different.
Some days worms won’t be your savior but on other days they could start a red hot bite.
How do you get worms in the winter
Like I said, collecting your own nightcrawlers or wigglers during the deep freeze of winter is nearly impossible.
There is the option of growing your own worms. Although, that’s a bigger chore than I want to deal with. It’s not easy and it takes a fair bit of space to grow a sufficient supply of worms for the winter. Not to mention, a worm farm is probably more expensive than buying other baits.
Having a supply of worms for early ice is possible if you catch your own in the fall. Worms generally keep well in the refrigerator with quality bedding and occasional feedings. Just check them weekly to remove unhealthy worms.
You can learn more about catching and caring for your own worms in our complete nightcrawler guide. This popular article is well worth the read.
So, if catching or growing them is not an option, especially in late winter, then buying worms is the only avenue open to you.
Since some stores don’t stock worms in the winter, take a look online. Yes, you can actually buy nightcrawlers online and they are fairly inexpensive.
Not surprisingly, Amazon sells all varieties of worms. However, I find worms to be pricey on Amazon.
Instead, check out crawlers and wigglers at speedyworm.com. One hundred worms will cost you less than $10. Although, shipping costs could double that but it is still a few bucks less than what is available on Amazon. Speedyworm sells other popular ice fishing baits as well, making it great for one-stop shopping.
What kinds of fish like worms
It’s probably much easier to list the fish that don’t like worms. Mainly because I don’t know of many that won’t take a worm at some point. Let’s take a look at the kind of fish that produce the best catches on worms in the winter.
By far, trout are the easiest species to catch on worms in the winter. Tip a jigging spoon with a small piece of fresh worm or bait a small ice jig using a larger piece. Either way, I would not hesitate to use worms all year long for trout.
You can catch perch with just about any bait and worms usually work pretty well. I would prefer using smaller live baits like little meal worms or waxies though. Perch have small mouths and their tendency to nibble means devouring a large chunk of earthworm is unlikely. Size down when using worms to improve your hookup ratio.
If you’re targeting bluegill then bring out the worms. They do get finicky sometimes and a big chunk of crawler might spook them so simply size down and it’s game on. Tip ice flies or tiny jigs with the tiniest piece of worm you can. While maggots and wax worms are usually a favorite for bluegill anglers, earthworms deliver a unique scent that could spice up your panfish bite.
Crappie occasionally eat worms during aggressive bites. However, worms aren’t my first choice in bait for crappie under the ice. You’ll have much better luck catching crappie with live minnows. In areas with mixed panfish populations, you’ll have a hard time keeping perch and bluegill away.
Catfish rely heavily on scent when hunting for food. Stink baits like chicken livers, shrimp or scented dough baits are top baits for die-hard catfish anglers. Fishing for cats through the ice is no different. Scent is crucial during the low light of winter and big nightcrawlers have plenty of scent.
Worms probably won’t be as effective as other stink baits but if that is all you have then go for it. You can even add some additional liquid scent on the worm.
Worms may be an awesome bait for walleye during open water season but a worm bite on ice is less reliable. The key to catching walleye with worms is to rig up with only the most active crawlers. Deadsticking with a writhing worm on a tungsten jig near bottom can be quite successful when walleye seem extra lazy.
Whitefish are notoriously difficult to pattern and picking the right bait is a struggle some days. Under the ice, whitefish forage for a variety of small prey. Worms can be a good choice if the bite is right.
It is possible to ice fish for bass with worms and you’ll catch a few. Largemouth, however, are trickier to entice with worms once the ice forms. While soft plastic worms are insanely popular baits for bass, it has more to do with their resemblance to bait fish as opposed to actual worms. I have much better success using big earthworm on smallmouth bass than I do for largemouth.
What fish won’t eat worms under the ice
Like I said, not many fish will refuse a worm all the time. Even so, there are some fish I would avoid fishing for with earthworms during ice fishing season. I’m not saying worms don’t work. But for these species, worms are not the best choice.
Big lakers are cruising for food in the winter and a small worm just isn’t attractive enough. Instead, larger live or dead minnows, big spoons and soft plastics are what you need to drag up trophy sized lake trout.
Big northern pike expect a big meal. Dead bait like suckers, smelt and chubs make a more appetizing mouthful for giant pike. Pike scavenge and hunt constantly for a meal and worms are unlikely to get them excited.
Muskie, like pike, are probably not going to give worms a second thought. Quick strike rigs with dead bait is gold, so why use anything else?
How do you ice fish with crawlers and red worms
Okay, maybe I have convinced you that worms are worth a try and maybe you can get your hands on some. So, how do you rig them up?
If trout or panfish are your focus then baiting up with worms is a cinch. My favorite worm delivery method is a small tungsten jig. It’s a small profile perfect for a deadstick setup. Put a small worm chunk on the jig and load your pole into the iFishPro or Jaw Jacker. Now just let it sit.
I also like to use little spoons and jigging Raps tipped with small pieces of nightcrawler. This setup is better when trout or panfish need convincing with more active presentations.
Walleye, bass and catfish might need a little more incentive to bite what you are offering. In this case, use your favorite jigs, lures or even a drop shot style setup and put a more substantial piece of worm on. Maybe put the whole worm on when fish are aggressive.
Always remember that your worms should be fresh and active, especially if you rig up whole worms for bigger fish. Change out your bait frequently so that you disperse more scent around.
How to keep worms alive out on the ice
A common dilemma for many ice anglers is keeping bait alive and active in the extreme cold. Whether you use worms, spikes, maggots, waxies or minnows, fresh lively bait gets bit more.
Easier said than done though. Once temperatures drop well below freezing, it only takes a few minutes exposed to the elements and your bait is dead. It might still work but not as well.
One popular tool for keeping small baits like wax worms and spikes alive while you’re on the ice is an insulated bait puck. They fit in an inside pocket and your body heat keeps them warm.
Worms ideally should be kept at a temperature between 50°F to 60°F. The problem is they don’t fit in a small puck like maggots. Which means you’ll be shoving a much larger worm container in your pocket. When you’re mobile that could be a problem. But it is doable.
If you’re staying in one place or you’re in a tent or shack, keeping worms comfy is far simpler. Keep their container near a heater and off the ice. That is all you need to do. As long as they don’t freeze, they’ll work great.
I understand that everyone has their favorite baits and some definitely work better than others. However, as early ice gives way to the cold clutches of mid-winter, fish get accustomed to seeing the same baits over and over.
It’s during these tough bites on pressured lakes that reverting back to the common earthworm is key. The difference in taste, smell and presentation is all it takes to turn your day around.
Whether you target trout, panfish or walleye, add some worms to your ice fishing arsenal and you won’t be disappointed.