Bait — Fat Innkeeper Worm

Ken Jones

Staff member
Been working on updates to the "Bait" section. Will try to post one bait a day.

Innkeeper Worm. There’s one bait that I actually kind of feel sorry for. What? How can you feel sorry for a creature when you have no problem ripping it from its home, cutting it up, hanging it on a hook, and freezing it when you’re done? Yep, it doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Nevertheless that’s kind of how I feel about the innkeeper worm, one of the best baits we have, certainly one of the most interesting, and one that unfortunately, due to its looks, is the brunt of many, many jokes.

The Fat Innkeeper Worm, also given the unfortunate names Weenie Worm and Penis Fish, is an Echiurid worm, a species of spoon worm in the family Urechidae, with a scientific name Urechis caupo. It’s found from Baja Mexico to southern Oregon but is most commonly found in the sloughs and bays of central and northern California, especially Monterey to Bodega Bay. It reaches 19 1/2 inches in length (although most are 6-8 inches long) but grows very slowly; a large worm can be decades old.

What makes it most interesting is its domestic situation. Home to an innkeeper worm is a U-shaped burrow that it constructs, one that is then co-inhabited by a number of other small creatures. Thus the worm becomes the “innkeeper” to its various tenants.

The innkeeper typically live in soft mud or sand in bays and estuary areas where it uses its suction and filter motions to pump water into the burrow, water that contains various bits of food. The lodgers mainly subsist on the leftovers of this food.

Most typically the boarders inhabiting the burrow with the worm are a beautiful, reddish scale worm (Hesperonoe adventor), one or two pea crabs (Scleroplax granulata or Pinnixa franciscana), and one to five small arrow gobies (Clevelandia ios). Depending upon the area they may be joined or replaced by a clam (Cryptomya californica), and the hooded shrimp (Betaeus longidactylus). All are basically freeloaders living off the discarded leftovers from the worm.

There is little doubt that innkeeper worms are a primo bait, especially for those fishing in bays, but it is also used by surf fisherman; it can provide excellent action in either locale.

There is no argument though that it has long been considered “the” bait for the croaker specialists, the solitary anglers who visit their secret croaker holes day after day in pursuit of large spotfin croaker. Some corbina specialists feel the same way!

Of course it will also attract a wide plethora of other fish— yellowfin croaker, black croaker, bass, flatfish (sole, diamond turbot and starry flounder), various sharks (mainly smoothhounds and leopard sharks), rays (bat rays, round sting rays and butterfly rays), and shovelnose guitarfish. In fact, it may be the bat ray’s favorite food.

The one negative, at least for some, is that it is bait rarely encountered at bait shops. If you want to use innkeeper worms you’ll need to get them yourself. Luckily they are in the same inner bay areas as clams and ghost shrimp and a bait searching trip may produce all three baits.

The hole to their burrow is in mud or sand and looks like a sand cone that appears to be glued together by their mucus-like secretions. Look for them beneath these volcano-shaped secretions. They seem to prefer shady places under docks, bridges, and other shade producing structure, Once you find the holes use a ghost shrimp suction pump to pull them from the sand. They will emerge looking like a hot dog (weenie) in both color and size. Once you’ve filled your quota you can keep them in a cool place like a refrigerator or ice chest for several days.

The method for using the bait depends to some degree on the size of the worm and the fish you are seeking. Small innkeepers, up to around three inches in length, can be used whole. You will not catch perch or the smaller croaker and bass on a whole innkeeper but in inner bay waters you may be rewarded with a good-sized spotfin croaker, corbina, bass, shark or ray. Oceanfront waters may see a spotfin or corbina and, if you’re really lucky, perhaps a white seabass. Even larger worms can be used if you’re exclusively seeking out the bigger sharks and rays. Run the hook down the worm’s body, push the hook through the outer skin, and make sure the tip of the hook and barb are free of the flesh.

Most large innkeepers are cut in half and prepared as strip bait, ½-3/4-inches wide. I like to taper the cut bait and insert the hook into the wider end of the bait and weave it through the bait two or three times making sure the tip of the hook and barb are finally outside the flesh.

We have had several reports of their use on the Pier Fishing In California Message Board. One report said anglers were using them to catch starry flounder in the Santa Cruz area. Another report came from Neptune, a Pier Rat living in the Bodega Bay area. He reported, “I have caught all sorts of stuff on these guys. Any minus tide you can pump them 3 or 4 at a time in one of my special spots. I freeze them two to a bag. Cut into strips they’re hot for many species. Whole, with a few little slices, they're hot for bat rays and especially leopard sharks. Hook up a lot faster than on squid. Just about every shark and ray I've caught in Bodega had a few of these guys in their tummies.”

A similar worm should be mentioned. Occasionally when my dad was making bait in Mission Bay, digging for clams, or pumping for ghost shrimp, he would run across large worms most of which he simply called innkeeper worms. However, he showed me a worm one day that though similar, was not an innkeeper worm. The pictures I took reveal what I believe is another interesting worm, the white peanut worm, Sipunculus nudus, a worm common from Ensenada to Mission Bay, and typically found in the quiet, sub-tidal waters of sandy bottom bays. It has a whitish-colored skin that is shining and iridescent with a surface composed of small rectangular bumps. Most that I've seen were around six inches in length but it ranges from 3 to 10 inches in length. By the way, my dad reported that this whitish-colored worm also made excellent bait.


White Peanut Worm — Mission Bay

Awesome New Bait Corbina have been hitting steadily along a two-block stretch of beach between 65th Street and 67th Street in Belmont Shores for three weeks despite the sometimes unsettled weather, said Rick Cooper of Simba’s Bait and Tackle in Long Beach... Cooper said all of the fish were caught on a bait that is relatively new to the area. The awesome creature, pulsating like a monster from a horror movie, is called an “innkeeper worm,” and a check with marine bait shops along the Los Angeles and Orange County coast found only one other—The Jig Stop in Dana Point—that carried the formidably proportioned bait.​

They average nine to 12 inches in length, and two or three inches in diameter and are supplied from the tidal flats of Morro bay, although they are known to inhabit the estuaries and tidal flats along most of the California and Baja coast. Larger specimens sometimes run 18 inches... Cooper said he has obtained them occasionally over the past year, but only a month ago developed a steady supply of the worms and now sells about 50 to 80 a week at $1.50 each. “Fishermen can slice it into pieces or strips, getting several baits from each worm, and unlike more common bloodworms and other bait, it is so tough it will stay on the hook all day, and most of the fishermen will catch more than one fish with a single piece of bait,” Cooper said. “The worm also freezes well, and some prefer to buy them frozen. But, the real secret of success, according to Cooper, is adding a few drops of red food coloring to the bait, which makes it a bright pink, exaggerating its natural coloring...

Larry Burson, owner of the Jig Stop in Dana Point, said he has had the innkeeper worm available about three years. “When they work, they are the hottest thing you can put on your hook, but at times they won’t get a fish,” Burson said. They are equally effective for croaker, and last June were producing white seabass from 30 to 45 pounds in the surf at San Onofre, including 12 fish in that size range in one day. Burson said he has never heard of coloring the worms, but agreed that the idea makes sense because the fish prefer those that are naturally a brighter red.

—Jerry Ruhlow, Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1981


Naturally 2019 Closes with Thousands of 10-Inch Pulsing “Penis Fish” Stranded on a California Beach.

You could be forgiven for being offended by the above photo: thousands of 10-inch wiggly pink sausages strewn about Drakes Beach. The same phenomenon has been reported over the years at Pajaro Dunes, Moss Landing, Bodega Bay, and Princeton Harbor. I’ve heard my share of imaginative theories from beachcombers, such as flotsam of a wrecked bratwurst freighter. In truth, these are living denizens of our beaches rudely, yet also mercifully, mostly called “fat innkeeper worms.”
...So how did thousands of fat innkeeper worms get strewn across Drakes Beach? Well, we’re seeing the risk of building your home out of sand. Strong storms—especially during El Niño years—are perfectly capable of laying siege to the intertidal zone, breaking apart the sediments, and leaving their contents stranded on shore.

—Ivan Parr, Bay Nature, December 10, 2019,
—Photo by David Ford

Ken Jones

Staff member
The funny thing about researching innkeeper worms is that if you look them up on the Internet, there are literally dozens of stories, with the above picture, concerning the "penis fish." I guess we know what gets attention. Of course I too included it — and thought it was interesting.