Worms turn fishing into a fun, lovely mess

As a 3-year-old, you turned over rocks to hunt for them. You grabbed one and tossed its slimy body into your sister's hair just for kicks. You fried one on the kindergarten playground with your magnifying glass. And the first time you skewered one on a hook, you completed an American rite of passage from human to angler that makes other rituals like circumcision seem like no skin off your, um, nose.

Oh, how the worm has been there for all those important moments of our lives.

These amazing little dirt-eating invertebrates are really the backbone of fishing and the $3 billion angling industry they serve every year — in every way imaginable.

They've been cast, trolled and plunked. They've been imitated and fabricated. They've been researched, reclaimed, re-used and reeled in.

They've been cut, threaded and inflated. Even chewed and swallowed from the bottom of a mescal bottle.

Fishing simply wouldn't be such a lovely and messy endeavor without the enchanted worm.

"It may be doubted if there are any other animals which have played such an important part in the history of the world as these lowly organized creatures," Charles Darwin once wrote about worms.

And Darwin wasn't even talking about boating two 18-inchers while trout-fishing with worms at Howard Prairie Lake on Opening Day.

With the 2009 trout season opening April 25, when a quarter-million Oregon anglers are expected to hit the water — many will be bringing worms by the dozens.

Yet most will never pause to think about those whose lives will be sacrificed in hopes of catching the trout dumped from a hatchery truck just a few days earlier.

But all good bait deserves some explication.

So, let us now praise famous worms.

The common, everyday earthworm is a pretty bizarre little dirt-muncher that is praised by non-fishing civilians for its ability to replenish the earth with porous, fertile soil. Any kid who has taken grade-school biology knows that worms have no spinal columns or eyes, that they're nocturnal, slimy and defecate in their own holes as they eat their way through the earth.

But the worm has a lot of fascinating characteristics that just don't seem to pop up in everyday conversation.

For instance, if you hack off a worm's brain, its movements and lifestyle change very little. But if you hack off a worm's butt, it won't eat or crawl very well. Honest.

And earthworms actually have taste preferences. They like celery more than cabbage, and carrots more than celery. And they digest food with the help of tiny rocks in their gizzards, where the food is removed from the dirt they eat.

So, to say something tastes like dirt may actually be a compliment in the worm world.

Also, did you know worms are hermaphrodites? A hermaphrodite is an animal that possesses both male and female sex organs, which might explain why Dennis Rodman — the former wedding-dress wearing member of the National Basketball Association — was nicknamed "Worm."

Though it could technically mate with itself, worms choose to mate with other worms — and both worms come away pregnant in what has to be the fairest exchange in history.

And in Australia, they have giant earthworms that can grow up to 12 feet long.

Worms can fry in the sunlight, as anyone who has left a dozen crawlers in the back seat can attest. But they can live for months submerged in water.

So the next time some goober invites you fishing by saying, "Let's go drown us some worms," you can say, "But a worm can breathe via a respiratory exchange that can occur by general diffusion of water through its outer cavity, thus any references to worms drowning are misnomers."

From now on, fishermen inspired by precision in language should instead say to one another, "Let's go dunk some worms on Opening Day."

And if they do dunk some worms at their favorite lake on opening day, they will be doing themselves a favor.

Just about any fish eats earthworms. Rainbow trout, as everybody around here knows, eat worms. So do crappies, bluegills, perch, brown trout, brook trout, cutthroat trout, carp, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, pikeminnows and sculpins. And others too numerous to list.

Put a worm and corkie on a line and you can catch Rogue River steelhead in the summer or the winter. Put about six worms on a No. 6/0 hook and you can catch a sturgeon.

Dig up a sand worm, cast it into the ocean and you can catch black rockfish, blue rockfish, red snapper, greenling, cabezon, lingcod or any of 12 species of perch that live along the Oregon Coast.

So why are sleazy people called worms? Or why is it that when some outsider wiggles into a social group we say he "wormed his way in?"

And above all, why is it that, among the fly-fishing crowd, one of the rudest things you can call a guy is a "worm fisherman?"

Even flyfishermen are worm fishermen if they ever fish with a leech imitation, because leeches actually are — you guessed it — worms.

In fact, the worm is the most imitated item within the fishing industry.

Plastic worms, jig worms, PowerWorms, PowerBait and worm scent are all faux worms.

Yet nothing can match the real McCoy.

So come Opening Day, when you thread one of those slimy little critters onto your hook before casting into Howard Prairie or Diamond Lake, remember this: That sticky, dirt-chewing, hole-defecating, water-breathing, body-segmenting, hermaphroditic invertebrate is, without a doubt, owed a small debt for its sacrifice on behalf of your day of fishing.

And that debt's price is $1.99 per dozen.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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