San Juan Worms by Fox Statler
I bet you are all saying, “That this guy has lost it.” Am I crazy? Nope. In June I had a guide trip with Ray Askins from Mansfield, Ohio and his son Mark from Kansas City. At least twice a year for the past twenty years I have guided Ray and Mark. Ray is 82 years old, a good fisherman, a wonderful person, and a great companion. Mark is an intelligent, gentle man with a clean sense of humor.
People like these two make guiding enjoyable. Because of Ray’s age, I wade fish him only in gravel that is as flat as a parking lot. I admire his courage. Every year he insists on wading one day or at least part of a day.
On this particular day we were fishing at the Norfork Dam pool on the North Fork of the White River in north central Arkansas. The water seemed to be colder than other years and the gravel was caked over with an inch thick crust of olive-brown, dead algae. The fishing was slow, but the fish were good size. This particular day, the fly had to be dragging on this yucky algae in order to get a strike. We were using a dark gray “Planarian” imitation dropped under a “White River Dead Drifter Sowbug” and catching fish 14-17 inches long.
Ray and Mark were enjoying themselves and I did not want to interrupt their visit. I was busying myself with the awful algae on the gravel. I had backtracked our trail into the water and noticed that the fish were feeding wherever the algae crust was broken by our boot tracks. The water was about 18 inches deep and a large flake of the algae had floated downstream from where it had been disturbed. I placed my boot next to it. Then I yanked my foot up quickly trying to create an upwards current that would carry the algae chunk near the surface, where I could capture it without getting too wet. The algae chunk disintegrated from the sudden current, and a pink object caught my eye. Quickly I thrust my hand into the water below the object and let it descend into the palm of my hand. Slowly raising it out of the water, I realized that I had captured a worm as it began to crawl about. I dropped it back into the water and something very strange happened. I caught the worm again hurriedly. I dropped it again. I must have done this 10 or 15 times, each time the same thing happened. Letting that worm go, I quickly found another one to test. I dropped it and the same strange thing happened again.
Ray and Mark decided to quit early. After the goodbyes and the “I’ll see ya in the fall”, I returned to the water to investigate my worms. I caught about 50 worms in the next two hours and believe it or not, they all did the same thing. I borrowed a worm from a bait fisherman but his worm acted differently than the worms in the river. I had never heard another fisherman mention what I had seen. I headed home to research my worms on the Internet. I knew I had discovered something that could change worm fishing forever.
Once home I brought the computer up, hit the favorites for “google” and typed in “aquatic worms”. I read and read and read but nowhere was there a mention of what I had seen. I read about what lives in tailrace waters of Arkansas. I found that there are over a hundred species of aquatic worms. Some even have eyes. The worms that live in our lakes and rivers are called “Oligochaete” (ol-i-go-ket). For some reason, I like the ring of that word. I learned that these worms live in rivers that are considered to be “Organically Polluted” waters. My search taught me that biologist know this because of the aquatic insects and worms that are found in my rivers. I read on, I discovered that the problem of organic pollution would increase as the lakes above our rivers become older and more stratified. And finally, I learned that as the diversity of insects and worms disappear in our rivers the more serious the organic pollution becomes.
I live in Arkansas by choice. The lakes, streams, and rivers in this state are my joy. I never cared to travel west and fish such rivers as the Yellowstone, the Madison, etc. Why? As for fish, they don’t raise them bigger than they grow in Arkansas. Dry fly fishing is not my passion. Nymphing and streamer fishing is the ultimate for me personally. Somehow I got a lot of Boston Mountains’ water in my blood, probably by osmosis. It makes me angrier to have a cow take a dump in my streams than any insult you could give me. I would rather save a half-mile of any stream in the Ozarks than all the rivers in Montana. You bet I’m selfish! I hope you are too! We should all take care of what is ours first before we try to save the rest of the world.
There has been a lot of talk about what some people consider to be signs of ecological disaster in our Arkansas Rivers. Truthfully, it is just “so-much-poop”, “bull-hockey”, garbage. The bugs in our rivers are the best indicators of the changes that are taking place, as they are in yours. The more one sided and less diverse the selection of bugs becomes the more problems we all will have. Have you looked in your favorite river lately?
After guiding the White River and North Fork of the White River for over twenty years, here are some of my observations: Several islands and gravel bars in the river are gone or have moved down stream. This is normal. The banks of the rivers are still deteriorating. This will not stop until the Corp of Engineers change their method of running the river. This may never happen. Until then I am thankful for the landowners that preserve the banks with limestone rocks. Coon-tail Moss is still growing in the silted areas of the rivers. It is a remnant from when the rivers had warmer water. Sowbugs may be on the decline in the North Fork but scuds, caddis, craneflies and mayflies are on the increase. This is good. The same is true of the White River. In the White River, the scuds have changed color from a red-brown to dark-olive over the years because of the increased algae that is present on the river gravel. The White River has changed from a yellow and brown gravel bottom river to a light and dark olive bottom. The fish are generally smaller and presently there are fewer throughout the White River system below Bull Shoals Dam. The hatchery at Spring River is being renovated which adds to the present problem.
As for smaller fish, we need better regulations and to give more power and authority to our AG&FC Officers. In my opinion, we need to replace a couple of State Representatives, a Judge in this area, and one or more commissioners of the AG&FC that don’t believe in catch-n-release. Plainly said, plainly the truth. We need to be more concerned about what is happening to the water in our upstream lakes. Pollution here translates into long-term problems in our rivers.
The people who live on the banks of our streams and lakes are the main polluters of our waters. We need to be continually watchful of them. Every septic tank adds to the pollution problem. We need to become more “Progressive” in our thinking instead of the “Reactionaries” we are now.
Back to my Oligochaete Worms. The adult worms in my river are 3 to 4 inches long and about an eighth of an inch in diameter. They are shell pink to cerise on the main portion of their bodies and have a bright red tint on the ends due to the collection of blood vessels at the hair-fiber breathing apparatus. A mud line can be seen under their skin, which changes color depending upon the type of dirt that they are found in. In most cases the mud color is a dark gray.
I once watched a program on the behavior of worms on the Discovery Channel. Ancient worms searched for food randomly, while the more advanced modern-day worms search methodically. What is the difference between an Oligochaete worm and an Earthworm? Oligochaete drowns in air and an Earthworm drowns in water. Do they exhibit different behaviors in the same situation? Yes. When you drop an Earthworm in water it tries to wiggle free of it. Oligochaete do not. Instead they coil up like a corkscrew with a short tail and fall to the bottom quickly, then disappear into the gravel, mud, or debris on the bottom. This is what I saw. As long as the Oligochaete Worm is falling or moving in the water column it is coiled up tight like a spring or corkscrew with a short tail. Once it stops moving it quickly crawls away. So not all of the San Juan Worms are tied wrong, just the ones you fish in fast water.
I don’t know if the aquatic worms in all rivers and lakes exhibit this behavior. But I am lead to believe that if particular specie of worm is within a river system, then it can be found throughout that entire system. This would mean that the Oligochaete Worm I observed would be throughout the Mississippi Drainage system. Strangely without knowing it, our fathers taught us a valuable fishing lesson. Hook the worm on the hook several times. We did this to keep from loosing the worm so quickly. We didn’t know that it was a better imitation of an Oligochaete Worm. Thanks Dad for taking me fishin’.
What I observed has brought about several changes in tying the worms that I fish on the White River system. Now instead of tying a single colored worm, I always color the ends with red permanent marker pen. Because of the shape that the Oligochaete worm assumes when not on the bottom, it is easy to add weight. Different amounts of weight can be added to help the worm near the bottom in fast water. When fishing high water caused by a heavy generation cycle of the dams, I use a worm with as many as ten wraps of .035 lead wire. This is enough weight to replace the “BB” split shot which was placed about eighteen inches above the worm that I had been using. During low water periods, I generally prefer patterns with six to eight wraps of .020 lead wire. However, I do carry a few worms that have no weight in them. I use these when dropping a worm under another weighted fly. The realization of what an aquatic worm caught in the current looks like has also brought about an understanding of why some controversial patterns work. The first of these is a large egg pattern that is successful when no spawning is occurring in the river. Fluorescent shell pink eggs with a red spot in them are a favorite among egg patterns. Pink jigs are another such pattern. What do they really imitate? Probably a flesh pattern. However the flesh of most fish is a whitish-pink. The flesh of trout may be shell pink in color, but there are never enough decomposing or shredded trout in our rivers to warrant the productive abilities of pink jigs. Another question is also answered because of behavior of the Oligochaete worm. Browns are rarely caught in the heavy generation cycles on worms. Browns being as particular as they are would have no problem recognizing that a San Juan Worm is not in its environment during these periods. The San Juan worm is a good imitation of an earthworm that has been washed into the river by rain and bank deterioration. I have often noticed how productive a San Juan is after a heavy rain. But when the weather is dry, San Juan’s are a moderate producer. Here is my imitation of an Oligochaete Worm, they are simple and versatile. Drifting Oligochaete Worm Hook: 2170 series Daiichi Bent Shank hook, sizes #12 – #4.
Thread: Red or Fluorescent Red 8/0 Uni-Thread.
Lead Wire: None to 8 -10 wraps of .035 lead wire depending upon the amount of lead wire need to get the worm down into the current well.
Body: Ultra Chenille, small to medium, length 3 to 4 inches. In colors of Fluorescent Shell Pink, Fluorescent Pink, Fluorescent Red, Shrimp Pink and Wine.
Marker: Red Prismacolor Pen or Red Permanent Marker Pen.
Tying Instructions Step #1: Place the hook in the vise. Wrap the amount and size of lead desired in the middle of the shank of the hook. Start the thread at the eye of the hook. Wrapping toward the bend of the hook, tie down the lead (if used). End up at the beginning of the hook bend. Cover the thread wrappings with a light coat of glue.
Step #2: Cut the desired length of Ultra Chenille for the body. Color the last 1/4 Inch of each end lightly with a red pen. Tie in the Ultra Chenille at the beginning of the hook bend leaving a 1/2 to 3/4 inch tail. Wrap the thread forward to the middle of the lead. Loosely wrap the Ultra Chenille to this point and tie down with two wraps of thread. To make the wraps uniform, use a small knitting needle or toothpick.
Step #3: Wrap the thread to the eye of the hook. Loosely wrap the remainder of the Ultra Chenille to the eye of the hook. Tie down the Ultra Chenille. Whip finish and glue the threads of the head. This pattern is a great imitation of an Oligochaete Worm caught in the current. Only one thing is missing; the mud line. If Ultra Chenille were constructed with an iron-gray or black threads in the center, this pattern would be a perfect representation. I have discovered that Oligochaete Worms work extremely well in fast water for trout, smallmouth, and other specie of fish. I generally start the morning using a fluorescent red worm. Change to the fluorescent pink by mid morning. Fluorescent shell pink or shrimp pink for midday. Follow these colors in reverse for the afternoon and evening. The wine colored worm works well on very cloudy days from mid morning to mid afternoon. The reason the colors of the worms that work well changes during the day is due to the angle of the sun, cloud cover, and the color of light that is penetrating the water. This is also true of San Juan Worms and Jigs.