Swimming the worm
The new-year editions of the Timaru Herald 100 years ago were full of handy hints for holidaymakers. "Swimming the Worm" by Iron Blue was one of the more unusual articles about a form of fishing that has been long lost by many. Among the purest of anglers, it was not really seen as a sporting way to catch trout. Today all forms of tackle, from the once-banned huhu grub to rubber scented lures, are tossed at the trout. The birth of the canal fisheries in the Upper Waitaki, especially, has made trout fishing more accessible to many and led to the use of all manner of lures and baits.
As often we have been told, there are degrees in all things; and the saying holds good even in so small a matter as the presentment of a wriggling red worm to a speckled New Zealand trout.
As a fact, worm-fishing at its worst very closely resembles poaching, but at its best it may become a particularly difficult form of sport, which will require all the spare stock of skill that is in the possession of the angler.
A popular conception of the worm-fisher's kit is - any old rail of rod, any old rope of a line, a great big hook and a sinker - especially the "sinker". "Swimming the worm" was not to do with anything of the kind, for it is a science by itself, and quite as artistic as the use of a "wet-fly". It is practised in low, clear water, under conditions such as those which exist at the moment of writing, when our South Canterbury streams are so badly in want of rain, and on a bright, hot morning, when even a dry fly is ventured without much hope of success, what may be termed a "drifted worm" will fill the basket.
The greatest authorities have it that this method is both artistic and sporting, so now a word about the necessary outfit.
A rather whippy fly-rod, about 11 feet long, is the best for the purpose, for with a stiff rod, the worm is very easily flicked off, or spoiled in casting, and the ordinary waterproofed silk fly line will do very well.
In low, bright water, the finer the tackle, the greater the sport, and the number of breakages; but at the end of the day a more weighty basket will make up for several smashes, and unless the water is very full of weed or snags, the cast should not be thicker than the xxx or xx size.
Many people use a Stewart flight of three hooks, while others prefer a Thompson tackle, but all considered, a single middle-sized "sneck" bent hook is the most serviceable. More bites may be missed with a single hook, but more fish will take hold of a bait that is less evidently armed than the Stewart arrangement, which is better suited to coloured water.
A bag of properly prepared worms must be included in the outfit, and these can be made much tougher, and less likely to flick off the hook, by keeping them in damp moss for several days before the time of their sacrifice. The ordinary garden lob worm is rather too large and heavy for the method of drifting; and by far the most attractive bait is a small red worm with yellow rings, which is found in old hot beds or heaps of refuse.
This worm is called a "brandling" and, despite its attractive appearance, it stinks most horribly, which perhaps is why the trout prefer it above the rest. Some people say fish have no sense of smell, but I think this opinion is very far from correct.
On arriving at the waterside, the angler hooks on a worm and begins by casting gently up or across the stream, allowing the worm to drift slowly back to his position, perhaps by the side of a big rock or under the shelter of an overhanging bank.
If there is no bank, the largest fish very frequently lie close in to the stones at the edge of a swift ripple and, when found in such spots, they are generally on the feed.
The bait is allowed to swim down with the current until it is well past the fisherman, when it is drawn carefully back for a fresh cast. If it stops on the way down, either a trout may have taken it in charge, or the single shot that is used on the cast may have caught on a root or stone.
Generally, I find that if you think a fish has taken the worm, it is an even chance of stone or trout, but sometimes the trout will give notice of his presence by two or three little pulls or by moving slowly to one side, when he must be struck - tenderly, on account of the fine tackle - and treated with care until he is in the net. If he is not sure of what has happened, the angler should strike gently whenever the bait stops on its downwards course, for the largest fish often give the least notice of their presence.
If a weed or stone has caused the stoppage, no harm is done, and many fish will be hooked in this way, which, had one waited, might have become suspicious and discarded the bait.
The exceptions to the orthodox up-stream casting: Very often the head of a run alone is not negotiable by reason of snags or gorse bushes that overhang and, when this is the case, cast the worm in at the top, let it travel down a little, then stop and pull it very slowly up against the current before letting it go down again. If nothing happens, ease off the line and let the worm go as far down as possible, then adopt the same tactics.
In this form of "swimming the worm", a trout will usually hook itself and make known the fact by struggling violently, but perhaps while the worm goes down, a very light pull is felt, when the proper proceeding is to slack off line to the fish and to wait about three seconds before striking.
Another exception is a pool under a road bridge or under a high bank, which holes are likely enough to harbour the largest fish in the stream.
These may be treated in a similar way, but first as a rule, they should be worked as far as may be practicable from below.
In the usual up-stream casting, after the line has been extended to the required length, keep the rod point vertically over the travelling bait as much as possible, raising the worm clear of the stones, and occasionally lifting or lowering the point as it goes down. Previous knowledge of the water and the favourite haunts of the trout is a great help.
The worm always must be got into the water with the least amount of splash, and care must be taken to avoid any flick in the cast. I repeat this caution, because it is by no means easy to make a satisfactory cast at first, and the process of rebaiting the hook, especially when brandling is used, is a messy business. One point greatly in favour of this most scientific "swimming" of the worm is that the captured fish are generally hooked in the mouth and the angler seldom has to explore their secret recesses, which often must happen when the worm is used in thick water.
The Timaru Herald