Ever since Nick Creme invented the plastic worm back in 1949, bassers have discovered endless ways of rigging these lures, including on a bare hook with no weight. Weekend bass anglers have been fishing the so-called floating worm for over 50 years, but lately the method has had a resurgence on the professional tournament trail. "Major tournament circuits, including B.A.S.S. and FLW, have revamped their schedules so more events are held in spring and fewer in summer," 2002 B.A.S.S. Masters Classic champ Jay Yelas explained. "The floating worm happens to be especially effective from pre- to post spawn, when bass lurk around shallow cover. This spring-heavy tournament schedule also gives the advantage to pros adept at sight-fishing for bedding bass, and these competitors view the floating worm as one of the deadliest sight-fishing lures."
Although there are variations, the basic floating worm setup is a 6- to 8-inch straight-tail plastic worm rigged without a sinker, using only a hook to sink it. Virtually every soft plastic lure manufacturer markets a worm specifically formulated for this technique, with high-grade plastics cooked at exactly the right temperature to achieve the necessary buoyancy. They float on the surface unrigged, sink slowly when hooked, and respond with an erratic, sinuous action to the slightest twitch of the rod tip.
Pros typically rig a floating worm (a) with an offset or extra wide gap worm hook run through the nose and out the body, Texas style, or (b) with a circle hook run sideways through the middle of the worm, "wacky" style. Obviously the bigger the hook, the faster the worm will sink. Most pros fish the lure on a 6 1/2-foot medium-action spinning rod with 10 or 12 pound mono.
Outrageous vs. Natural Colors
Color is a hot topic among floating worm aficionados. Should you use a bright-colored worm, or one that's more subdued and realistic?
Many pros (Jay Yelas included) prefer a hot color such as bubble gum, yellow or white with this technique. Not only do bass often react aggressively to these high-viz colors, they're easy for the fisherman to see.
Alabama pro Randy Howell feels the ability to see the worm from a distance gives the angler a tremendous advantage. "If you're fishing a bright-colored worm in clear water, you can easily see it a cast-length away," Howell told Bass Pro's OutdoorSite. "When you spot a bass moving in to inspect the lure, you can either 'kill' the worm (stop the retrieve so it sinks slowly), twitch it gently, or swim it rapidly, all while watching how the bass reacts. This is harder to do with a realistic worm that blends into its surroundings, impossible to accomplish with a deeper presentation using a Texas or Carolina rig. I usually fish a white floating worm; it glows like a neon tube in the water and triggers savage reaction strikes from bass."
But sometimes bass will either fail to respond to a bright-colored worm, or roll on it without striking. This calls for a more natural or subdued color, Howell indicated. "If bass are spooked by bright colors, try to match the prevailing forage. Lime green is a good color choice when fishing around overhanging trees or bushes; it mimics a live caterpillar. Baby water snakes hatch out in spring and are easy targets for bass as they swim along the margins of the lake; a black and yellow striped floating worm is a convincing imitation of a baby snake."
We asked Howell, Yelas and Alabama pro Ricky Harp how, when and where they fish the floating worm. Take careful note of their responses, for each of these competitors has won thousands of dollars on these buoyant baits.
"The floating worm is a great lure for clear to moderately stained water," Texas pro Jay Yelas said. "I fish a 6-inch straight-tail worm, pink mostly, on a wide-gap 4/0 hook."
Skipping is the key to catching quality bass on the floating worm, Yelas insisted. "Skipping a worm is like skipping a stone. You want the worm to hit the water in front of your target with enough impact so it skitters into the fish zone. Make a sharp, side-arm snap-cast with a whipcracking stroke of the rod so the lure hits the water hard. Properly executed, it will skip four or five times, scooting under overhanging branches and into spots overhand casters only dream about reaching. Here's where a medium-action rod comes into play: you can't get the desired whipcrack effect with a rod that's too light or too stiff."
Yelas has caught some giant bass on floating worms in tournaments. "It's even more fun than topwater fishing, because you can see everything -- the lure, the approach of the fish, the take. In fact, the floating worm is so exciting to fish, it can entice you into staying with it too long. I've found bass will turn off this lure as quickly as they turn onto it, so you must be prepared to leave it in favor of another lure once the bite subsides."
Fortunately, it's easy to tell when the floating worm begins to lose its magic -- just watch the way bass react to it, Yelas advised. "If they rushed out of cover to eat it an hour ago, and now only nip its tail or follow it half-heartedly, it's time to switch to a backup bait. Good backup choices include a tube bait, finesse worm, lizard and centipede, all rigged with a pegged worm sinker or on a jighead and fished on the bottom by shaking the rod tip. In bedding season, it's critical to view these backup lures are part and parcel of your floating worm fishing, not as separate lures and presentations."
The floating worm is an integral part of Yelas' sight-fishing arsenal. "I seldom present the same lure to a bedding bass two casts in a row. Instead, I keep rods rigged with all the above-mentioned baits and, to keep the fish agitated, constantly rotate among them. When I spot a big fish on the bed, I'll start by twitching a floating worm. If the bass doesn't bite it immediately, I'll toss one of the other lures onto its bed, then another, and another, until the fish can't stand it anymore and smacks it."
"My biggest bass on a floating worm weighed 10 pounds," Randy Howell said. "I use a 7-inch straight-tail worm rigged on a 4/0 offset-shank hook. This hook has enough weight to get the lure down into that 'twilight zone' where you can barely see it and plenty of bite for sticking a lunker bass."
Howell finds a floating worm highly effective in water from 55 to 75 degrees. He fishes it around laydown logs, isolated weed patches, boat docks, brushpiles, weedlines and other shallow bass cover.
"Anybody, even a kid who's just learning to cast, can catch big bass on a floating worm," Howell insisted. "But like Jay said, those who really excel with the bait are adept at skipping it. When bass are pressured, such as during a tournament, they retreat farther back into flooded bushes and other cover, and skipping is the only viable presentation for reaching them."
Howell fishes a floating worm fairly fast, alternatively turning the reel handle, twitching the rod rip and letting the bait sink a spell. "Many anglers fish this lure way too slow. I use it to trigger a reaction strike from bass. I like to keep the worm high enough in the water column so I can see it when standing up in my boat."
As much as Howell loves fishing a floating worm, he likes winning tournaments more. "If bass are rolling or flashing on the lure but not actually eating it, I'll immediately switch to a backup bait," he said.
How-To From Harp
Rickie Harp used a floating worm to win a berth at the 2000 B.A.S.S. Masters Classic. "I won by a B.A.S.S. Federation tournament on Tennessee's Fort Loudon Lake on a yellow 8-inch floater," he said. "This was the only lure I used in three days of competition to catch over 27 pounds of bass. The floating worm is a tremendous tournament lure, for it'll catch quality bass and lots of 'em. Once when prefishing for another tournament, I caught seven bass weighing 41 pounds on a floating worm."
Compared to Yelas and Howell, Harp fishes the floating worm to extremes. "I rely on it in clear or muddy water, both shallow and deep, nearly year-'round. I'll stay with it from early spring through late fall, whenever the water temp is above 55 degrees."
Harp fishes an 8-inch floater on a 6/0 offset worm hook, a larger hook than most anglers use with this bait. "One reason for the heavier hook: I use 6/30 SpiderWire, which has zero stretch," he explained. "This super-tough line lets me put maximum pressure on a big bass in thick cover, which might bend a lighter hook. I also fish the worm on a 6-foot, medium-action baitcasting rod instead of spinning gear."
The Alabama pro uses an underhand roll cast to chunk the worm as far back into cover as possible. Many strikes occur as soon as the worm hits the water, he said. "Braided line helps me stick these long-distance fish, which would probably come unbuttoned on stretchy mono."
Harp lets the bass tell him how to retrieve the worm. "I vary my retrieve from active to very slow, depending on the mood of the fish. When bass are surface-feeding, try fishing the worm on top like a stick bait, making it walk the dog by twitching the rod tip and reeling at the same time. If this doesn't work, twitch it out from the cover quickly, then gradually slow it down as it moves toward the boat, letting it sink to around 6 feet. After bedding season, bass that were hanging around shallow wood and grass move out in front of this cover and suspend in deeper water. Slow-twitching the lure at their level can pay off big."
Changing colors is critical with this lure. "I'll often make a half-dozen loops around a good-looking area, using a different color floating worm on each pass," Rickie said. "On sunny days, dark colors like purple and black seem to work best, while the brighter colors produce better for me on overcast days."
Missed hookset can be avoided by waiting a second or two before hammering the fish, harp stressed. "I've watched big bass swim up and chomp down on the middle of the worm, carry it off a few feet, spit it out, then take it again from the head. If you set the hook immediately when you feel a bite, you'll miss a lot of fish."
The biggest mistake you can make with a floating worm? "Not fishing it," Harp added. "This lure is not only a deadly tool for the serious angler, it puts the fun back into bass fishing. And every serious angler could stand to have a little more fun."
REDUCING LINE TWIST WITH FLOATING WORMS
Line twist is a problem many anglers encounter when fishing floating worms on spinning gear. Here's how top pros overcome those maddening snarls and tangles.
- Often when you first take a worm out of its package or your tacklebox, there's a bend in its body from sitting in storage. These kinks cause the worm to roll unnaturally when twitched, resulting in line twist. At the start of the fishing day, lay several worms on the deck of your boat. The sun will soften them, making the kinks disappear.
- Make sure the worm is rigged absolutely straight, not off to one side even slightly, or it'll twist your line.
- A small swivel rigged 18 inches above the worm can substantially reduce line twist. When fishing around snaggy wood cover, many pros use a leader line from the swivel to the worm that's heavier than their main line.