Catching crawlers is part of fishing experience

I don’t miss digging out the crud under my fingernails after a day of baiting nightcrawler harnesses, but I do have fond memories of simpler fishing times.

Like many anglers who learned to fish in Northeast Ohio, I am a graduate of the school founded on a curriculum that taught the importance of good, quality worms.

You wanted to catch fish? Get nightcrawlers.

As a youngster, I spent countless hours on my hands and knees pointing a flashlight at the lawn after sunset. Once the ground cooled and the dew formed, fat nightcrawlers emerged from the turf.

But they always kept part of their slimy bodies within their dirt burrows. Catching them required a quick hand and a steady but gentle pull. React too slowly and the crawlers were gone. Pull too hard and you would tear them.

The front yard was an OK worm farm, but a much better place was the fairway of the 14th hole on Mill Creek’s south course. It was literally crawling with bait by the time Dad and I would venture out around 11 p.m. for an hour of worm plucking.

Our goal was to stock up for upcoming walleye trips. We typically came home with a coffee can crammed with crawlers. That was enough to get us through the first few days of a weeklong vacation in Michigan, and certainly plenty for a day of dragging junebug spinners around Lake Milton. Of course, the worm container next to the sandwiches in the cooler wasn’t popular with Mom and my sisters.

The nightcrawlers were the essential component. They could be purchased, of course, just like one can buy a jar of jam. But harvesting them was part of the fun, just like picking strawberries before the weekend Mom dedicated to making homemade preserves.

Nightcrawlers were synonymous with the early days of Lake Erie’s walleye boom. The weigh-forward Erie Dearies of Capt. Dan Galbincea were virtually useless without a gob of crawler. A two-inch tail dangling off the back of the hook, flapping back and forth as the angler retrieved, sealed the deal as walleyes examined the spinner.

Whether I picked them myself or bought them at the bait shop, nightcrawlers always made my hands dirty. The grime in the creases of my fingers and under my nails was the telltale sign of a busy day of fishing.

Sometimes the fishing was so good we ran out of worms before it was time to go home.

On a weekend many years ago, friends joined Barb and me for a couple of days of fishing and camping at Berlin Reservoir. We had four dozen nightcrawlers, which in our experience seemed to be more than enough.

By 6 p.m. on the first day of our outing we had two keeper walleyes. Then we found a spot that must have been the inspiration for the clich “packed like sardines in a can.”

For the next two hours we reeled in walleye after walleye, all teased by nightcrawler-baited worm harnesses. It was fun until the unthinkable happened. We ran out of worms.

We resorted to picking up crawler pieces that littered the bottom of the boat. The walleyes continued to cooperate until, finally, the last of the shreds were gone, too.

Before settling around the campfire that night, we bought more bait for the next morning. By sunrise, we were back on our hot spot reeling in another four limits of walleyes.

That evening, as we filleted our fish, I noticed my fingernails were grimy with nightcrawler gunk. It was a pretty fair price for a memorable fishing trip.

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