Fishing with a Worm

Bliss Perry was a pioneer in the teaching of American literature. He taught at Williams, Princeton and Harvard, and edited the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. But I wouldn’t know anything about Professor Perry if he hadn’t written a book called Fishing with a Worm.

His short book—published in 1916—begins with an indictment of the fishing gene:

A defective logic is the born fisherman’s portion. He is a pattern of inconsistency. He does the things which he ought not to do, and he leaves undone the things which other people think he ought to do. 

which, I suspect, is the sort of thing that could be chiseled onto my headstone. Motivated by the simple observation that “fly-fishing has had enough sacred poets celebrating it already,” Perry closes his extended parable with this:

For life is not easy, after all is said. It is a long brook to fish, and it needs a stout heart and a wise patience. All the flies there are in the book, and all the bait that can be carried in the box, are likely to be needed ere the day is over. But, like the Psalmist’s “river of God,” this brook is “full of water,” and there is plenty of good fishing to be had in it if one is neither afraid nor ashamed of fishing sometimes with a worm.

I can’t remember how or when I stumbled onto this book, but I can remember that I’ve read it at least once every winter since. And though it’s been many years since I baited a hook with a worm, I decided this winter to do the next best thing. I tied a dozen San Juan worms.

I can’t think of a fly that is easier to tie than the San Juan worm. I can tie one in about the same time it takes to impale a real worm on a hook. The only downsides to these “flies” are that they take up a lot of space in my fly box, and some fishermen—the type of folks that Perry said “always fish as if they were being photographed”—might look down their noses at me.

I wasn’t sure if or when I’d fish my worms this year, but after a hard rain a few days before the trout season opener, a legion of small earthworms scattered across my driveway and I realized that my new flies might be the perfect match for this hatch.


On opening day on a remote river in the Ottawa National Forest, I tied one of my worms in tandem with a size 16 black stonefly nymph that I bought from the guy at the Laughing Loon Emporium in Iron River. “Most people fish a big fly for this bug, but these small ones work much better,” he told me. I’d tied some in that size already, but I have a simple arrangement with this man when I visit his store. He answers my “where’s the best place to catch a trout in Iron County” question, and I buy a dozen of his flies.

Just like the guy predicted, most of the fish took the small stonefly. I’m convinced, though, that my gaudy worm attracted them to the rig, and a few fish actually took the worm.

Two days later I resolved to try my worm and stonefly tandem on a local stream. Because all of the nearby rivers were still too cold to be “on,” I took the opportunity to hike into a remote location that I rarely fish after things get going. Two-and-a-half miles each way is just too much of a journey when shorter hikes are usually more productive. Once on the river, I flipped my rig into the likely spots and caught enough brook trout to keep me from thinking about the long hike out. Then, on a drift behind a substantial rock in the middle of the stream, I lifted my rod for what I believed was a light take, and—with a quick forward surge—a heavy fish promptly snapped the stonefly nymph from my line. It could have been a large brook trout, but, because this river has an unobstructed flow into Lake Superior, it might have been a steelhead. I knew there could be steelhead in this river, but I wasn’t prepared for that kind of battle. Planning to catch a few native brook trout, I’d brought a 4 weight bamboo rod with 4X tippet.

People who know me well say that—at times—I have a tendency to overthink things. This was one of those times. What if that was a steelhead? There is no way I can land one of those with this rod and 4X tippet. I have some small stoneflies that are similar to the ones the guy at Laughing Loon sold me, but they aren’t exactly the same, and I only have one of his left to use as a pattern. Maybe I should just walk around this hole and avoid losing that last fly.

I know about my tendency to overthink, though, so I fought off my demon, tied on the fly and continued to cast. A dozen casts later a fish bent my rod in a way that no brook trout in Michigan has ever bent a rod. Luckily, this section of the small river is uncharacteristically straight, and its narrow flow contains one downed tree, but few other line breaking obstructions.

When I landed the fish and saw that she had taken the worm, I thought once again about a passage from Professor Perry’s unique book:

But angling’s honest prose, as represented by the lowly worm, has also its exalted moments. “The last fish I caught was with a worm,” says the honest Walton, and so say I.

And so say I.

(Click the photo to see The Spot, The Catch, and The Release.)


Howard LevettMay 3, 2016 - 9:02 pm

I’ve been giving this some thought because it did hit home for me. Unfortunately, my story has to do with fishing with Powerbait, isn’t nearly as romantic (To my knowledge no one has written a classic about Powerbait)and doesn’t have nearly as good an ending. Thanks Tim.

Tim SchulzMay 3, 2016 - 9:44 pm


This looks like an opportunity. I think your story “Fishing with a Powerbait” could become the classic we need on this topic. Put the pen to paper, my friend. The nice folks at Berkley might even sponsor your project. 😉

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *