By Dennis Smith
Almost invariably, when April rolls around, two things come to my mind: 1) my father, and 2) digging worms with him behind the cow barn on Uncle George’s dairy farm long, long ago. I know: that seems an unlikely, if not weird, pairing of memories, but it’s an inescapable one for me.
You see, trout season opened on April 1 back East where I grew up. My father’s birthday fell in the same week, so we often went fishing together on his birthday. And we always had to dig a mess of worms before we went — usually behind Uncle George’s cow barn. Hence, the two events became indelibly linked in my subconscious.
Opening day of trout season was a big deal back there, and my dad was the best trout fisherman I ever knew. A child of the Depression, he lived with his Aunt Minnie in a two-room cabin at the northern extremity of the Shawangunk Ridge in New York’s southern Catskills. He grew up hunting and fishing as a matter of necessity rather than for any sense of sport. At 9 years old, he was hunting squirrels, rabbits and grouse with a sling shot and catching trout in the brooks and creeks to help put food on the table. He was good with his slingshot, but became a real whiz at catching trout.
His favorite bait was earthworms. Apparently, there are several thousand kinds, grouped into three main categories — Epogeic, Endogeic and Anecic — determined by how deeply they live in the soil, what they feed on, and so forth. Depending on species, adult earthworms can range in size from a mere third of an inch up to 9 feet long.
Most of us are familiar with nightcrawlers (also known as dew worms) and the common earthworms that we dig up in the top layers of our flower beds and veggie gardens. There are also compost worms (fishermen call them red wigglers) that feed on decaying leaves under forest duff in the woods, and even some that live under rocks in the trout streams called aquatic annelids.
My father neither knew nor gave a hoot about any of this, of course; he just knew he liked fishing garden worms for trout. That’s what he called them: “garden worms.” He thought nightcrawlers were good for bass and catfish but much too big for brook trout. Red wigglers were good for trout, too, but found almost exclusively in wet garden compost (yuk), and generally too small to put on the size 10 hook preferred for trout. Garden worms could be dug most anywhere and, more importantly, were just the right size.
It’s one of those innocuous little things you learn as a kid that seems to stick with you forever. Somehow it becomes a life lesson you find yourself passing on to your kids and grandkids as if it were a carved-in-stone requirement before taking them fishing. I’m reminded of that every April.