Curtis Hodnett bit down on the cigarette tip between his lips, pointed the spinning rod at the vanishing flourescent line and swept his arms back over his head.
The blue line arched taut as the 5 1/2-foot custom-made rod bowed. Fifty feet out a 3 1/2-pound largemouth bass broke the still surface of Lake Philpott in southwestern Virginia. After a brief but violent tussle, Hidnett slipped his thumb under the bass' lower lip, twisted the four-inch Strawberry worm free of the fish's jaw and sent the big bass back to its home beneath a decaying log.
The plastic worm had come through in style once more. When nothing else would draw a strike from Philpott's finicky largemouths and smallmouths, the artfully manipulated worm accounted for a handsome limit of bass averaging close to two pounds.
Fishing the artificial worm is at once the most deadly and difficult of bass techniques. Expert anglers plying the impoundments of summer rely almost exclusively on the plastic worm. Their perseverence often pays off in heavy stringers even on the most stifling of August days.
But for beginner worming can be frustrating. Until you get the feel of the method and begin catching fish with it, the technique seems boring and ineffective.
Even the experts rarely boat more than half the fish that strike their plastic worms. For novices the percentage of landed fish can be depressingly low.
The major hurdle to mastering the worming technique is confidence.
Just like working a weighted nymph through a deep run of a trout stream, plastic worm fishing for bass requires mental discipline and a strong belief that a fish is homing in on the offering.
Like nymph fishing also worming is a tactile angling method. The sense of sight that comes into play with dry flies and top-water bass plugs isn't there in worm fishing. It is the sense of touch that dominates. The worm must be felt across the bottom, not just reeled in.
Contrary to the opinion of some beginners, this feel is bet transmitted with a stiff rod. Flimsy rods cushion the sensation of the worm crawling over bottom structure and hide the strikes of bass tapping on the lure. When you do feel a hit, the flex of the elastic mono and the bend of a light, noodle-action rod absorb the force of your hook-setting efforts. The result is a bass that's either lightly hooked or not pierced at all.
But while a stiffaction rod is required, it needn't be a broomstick. Hodnett, a skilled worm fisherman, uses lightweight custom-made 5 1/2 foot spinning sticks. Graphite is the best material for worm rods, for whose who can afford it.
Mono needn't be extremely thick, either. Eight to 10-pound test line is just about right for worming in mid-Atlantic waters, where fish over 10 pounds are rare.
Worms can be threaded on weedless hooks, but most experienced anglers prefer the so-called Texas method of rigging. This method gives a weedless rig by burying the point of the hook in the side of the worm.
To rig a worm Texas-style, first slip a bullet-shaped sinker of 1/16 to 1/4 ounce on the line and knot the hook to the mono. Blued worming hooks in sizes 1/10 or 2/0 are best.
Next, thread the hook about one-quarter inch through the head of the worm and pull the barb out the side. Now slide the worm up so this threaded section slips over the eye of the hook.
Bunch the worm up slightly so that the hook can be threaded through the side of the worm at an angle with the point buried just under the surface of the worm. When using light lines, some anglers like to work the worm through this channel once or twice so the hook will slip through easily when striking a bass.
It may take a try or two before you learn how to rig the worm so it hangs straight on the hook. After that, assembling a weedless worm rig takes a matter of seconds.
Which worm should you use? Ask 10 anglers and you'll get 10 different answers. Two current favorites are worms with tiny rings around the sides and another variety with curlicues dangling out the flanks. The brand really isn't important, but it's good to stock several colors, including black, blue, purple, and red.
Size can make a lot of difference in worming.Six inches is the largest you need, and some of the most successful worm fishermen in this area use only four-inch miniatures.
The technique for worming is fairly straightforward. Casting to structure is the name of the game - rotting logs, underwater cemeteries, bridge pilings, stone riprap, docks, boat ramps and, especially during summer, points that drop off sharply into the main lake. In rivers, deep pools produce good smallmouth action.
Worms should be cast and allowed to sink to the bottom. It's wise to keep a sharp eye on the line, however, as fish sometimes pick up the soft morsels on the drop. If the line twitches or moves to the side take up slack and jam the barb quickly.
If a bass doesn't inhale the artificial worm on the fall, begin reeling slowly and steadily. Sometimes it's best to hop the lure up a foot and let it slither back down, but the steady retrieve is usually most effective. The worm should never leave the bottom by more than foot or so on the retrieve. You should feel it nicking and scraping over rocks and logs or slinking through moss and weeds with each crank of handle.
When a bass slips in the worm, point the rod tip at the fish, take up any loose line and sweep the rod back over your head as hard as you can. "Cross his eyeballs," as the pros graphically put it.
Worm fishing is tedious, no doubt about it. But for productivity, few bass fishing methods come close to it.