Saltwater Worms for Bait

Ken Jones

Staff member
I need to revise the following and would appreciate any thoughts you may have on how to improve it. Thanks in advance.

Saltwater Worms For Bait

Bloodworms. These worms were, until recently, the most common live bait worms found in southern California bait shops. And, though less popular than pile worms in the north (and generally more expensive), they recently have been carried in some Bay Area bait shops.

Today they are harder to find and when found are rather expensive (as much as $12-15 a dozen). They are expensive because most are flown in from the northeastern states such as Maine where they are hand harvested from local bays and estuaries. Bait shops face increased shipping costs and the cost of unsold bait that dies. Meanwhile, bait companies have a twofold problem. They are faced with more and more state regulations (and sometimes moratoriums) on the worms and they have a harder time finding people willing to dig the worms. The result: higher wholesale and retail prices. Today, at least in SoCal, bloodworms have been replaced in most bait shops by lugworms, a slightly inferior bait in my opinion, but one that is less expensive and more readily available.

Whatever the cost, bloodworms are excellent bait for many, many fish including croaker, surfperch, bass, and jacksmelt and they are probably the best bait for several flatfish such as turbot and sole. They are even excellent bait for sheephead. Whether taste or color is the main attraction, many fish will readily grab a worm-encrusted hook. Luckily, the bloodworms themselves have a somewhat strong casing that allows them to remain on the hook longer than softer bait.

As for the cost, anglers do have an option; they can dig their own local worms. More than 700 species of worms are found along California’s coast—bloodworms, pile worms, mussel worms, tube worms, slim worms, sand worms and many, many more, and most, depending upon size, make excellent bait. Most are found in estuarine habitats—the various bays, estuaries and mud flats but some are also found along the ocean shoreline. Digging in mud flats, in eelgrass beds, and under rocks, is a time-honored tradition for many. But, it does take time and effort so depending upon one’s job (opportunity cost) it may or make not make sense. For retirees working on their own time clock it can make perfect sense.

Bloodworms are found in genus glycera (annelid) meaning they are segmented worms, and all are members of the polychaete family of worms (bristleworms), a family containing thousands of different species. They are typically found on the bottom in shallow marine waters and are creamy pink in color with a pale skin that allows the hemoglobin to show through, hence the name bloodworms.

They are carnivorous and can extend a large proboscis (nose) that bears four hollow jaws connected to glands that contain venom used to kill their prey. Although it will not do any long-term damage, those same jaws can cause a painful bite to careless anglers. The worms can also squirt their red blood quite a distance so when cutting them for bait, or simply stringing them on a hook, it’s best to hold them out away from your clothing. I place them on cloth and try to block any blood from squirting on my clothes.

Because of the cost, and the fact that most bloodworms are sold in plastic bags (the worst thing to do since they quickly warm up in the sun), it is best to bring a small bait cooler with you when using this bait. If you are going to pay a top price for bait, keep it in top condition. When using the worms, cut pieces (starting at the tail end) just a little longer than the hook. String the worm on the hook, make sure the barb is outside the worm, and leave a small segment just past the hook.

Considering their numbers, it’s a little surprising more anglers do not dig the worms themselves. In Between Pacific Tides, Joel W. Hedgpeth makes the following, somewhat startling, comment regarding Euzonus mucronata, a bloodworm found from Vancouver Island to Punta Banda in damp sand, and studied at a La Jolla beach. “The abundance of bloodworms on some beaches indicates the rich supply of nutrient material in sand that seems barren to us. McConnaughey and Fox estimated that a worm bed a mile long might contain 158 million worms, or 7 tons of them.”

An idea courtesy of our Balboa Pier reporter Snookie: “if you have bloodworms left over at the end of the day put them in a bag with rock salt and freeze them. They will remain in amazingly good condition.”

Clam Worm. These worms are basically the West Coast equivalent to the commercial pile worms. They are not sold in bait shops but are the main sea worms dug up by anglers along the Pacific Coast. The worm has a plethora of names, which can be confusing when your talking to anglers in different areas, but it is what it is. Clam worm, sand worm, mussel worm, mud worm, pile worm, rag worm and my favorite, sea-nymph, all are names used for this singular species. However, given that its range is from San Diego north to Alaska and coastal Siberia (Russia) it’s not surprising it has so many names. It is the most abundant marine worm in the Pacific Northwest.

What is not debated is the scientific name Nereis vexillosa. They are annelid worms meaning they are segmented, centipede-looking worms. In their case they have over a hundred body segments. They are also members of the polychaete family of worms known as bristleworms, a family containing thousands of different species. They typically have a green, gray-green, or greenish-brown body but often have a bluish tone and may appear iridescent in direct sun. In size, they typically range from 2 to 12 inches in length.

Clam worms are found in mid- and low-intertidal zones in many different environments. In sheltered bays it is often found in mussel clumps, under docks, and in gravely sediment. On the open coast it tends to hide in mussel beds for protection against waves and current but also is found on pilings as well as under rocks and woody debris. As for getting your own bait, basically they are (1) either taken by hand, searching through mussels and under rocks or (2) in sandy, gravely or muddy areas, dug up with a shovel. It can be work but it’s well worth it if a person has the time (and when digging you may also find a few edible clams). Look upon it as good exercise. Do be careful today to check that the area you are searching for bait is not in one of the Marine Protected Areas.

Just like the imported East Coast pile worms, clam worms are excellent bait for many species. In SoCal they will attract perch (barred surfperch, blackperch, white seaperch, rubberlip seaperch), corbina, croaker (yellowfin, spotfin, black and white), bass (spotted bay bass, sand bass and kelp bass), jacksmelt and topsmelt, and several flatfish including diamond turbot, sole and even a few halibut. In CenCal and the Bay Area they are used for perch (barred surfperch, calico surfperch, blackperch, rubberlip seaperch, striped seaperch, rainbow seaperch, pileperch, white seaperch), kingfish (white croaker), jacksmelt and topsmelt, flatfish (sand dab, sand sole and starry flounder), brown rockfish, striped bass and sturgeon. In NorCal they care commonly used for perch (calico surfperch, redtail surfperch, blackperch, white seaperch, pileperch, striped seaperch), greenling (kelp and rock), jacksmelt and topsmelt, flatfish (sand dab, sand sole and starry flounder), and small rockfish (many).

How to use? For most fish, simply string the worm on your hook, generally sizes #8 to #4 depending upon the perch. Run the hook through the body of the worm with the tip of the hook and barb exiting the worm. Do much the same with the larger fish; simply use a larger hook and a larger piece of worm or a whole worm. High/low leaders fished near the bottom are the most common rigging for bottom species but Carolina-like rigs are also popular. For jacksmelt, small pieces of worm are put on smelt leader under a float (of some type). Typically the float is at the top, the first hook about four feet down, another hook a foot below that, a third hook a foot underneath that, and the sinker down another foot. Do handle with care; the pincer-like jaws can provide a painful bite to careless anglers.

The end of life story is interesting and explains PFIC reports where anglers have seen swarms of worms in the water. Apparently the worms only live about two years and during the summer full moon will sometimes spawn. Both males and females swim to the surface in mating swarms where they congregate. Males release sperm and females release eggs by rupturing their body wall; both die after spawning. The fertilized eggs form a sticky mass that sinks to the bottom and grows to about the size of an Easter time bluish-green chicken egg. The eggs hatch into larvae and within two weeks the larvae begin to build tubes, feed, and become territorial.

A close relative, and sometimes mistaken for clam worms is the giant pile worm, Neanthes brandti. It is very, very similar. It has similar coloring, is found in the same type environment (although a little deeper, low inter-tidal to sub-tidal), and has a similar range, San Diego to Siberia. The big difference is its size, the giant pile worm can reaches over 59 inches in length. One worm is all you would ever need for a day’s fishing.

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 if ever 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 trip searching for bait may produce all three.

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.

Awesome New Bait — Innkeeper Worm

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...and all 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 carries the formidably proportioned bait.

They average nine to 12 inches in length, and two to 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 baits, 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 coloration...

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 one day alone, he added.

Burson said he had 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 Ruthlow, Los Angeles Times, March 29, 1981

Lugworms. A 21st century addition to the southern California bait scene is the group of worms known as lugworms, sometimes called sandworms. They are olive green colored on one side and tan on the reverse and fished the same way as bloodworms. Like their cousin worms, they will attract croaker, surfperch, bass and flatfish when fished on the bottom; jacksmelt when fished in top-water areas.

Unfortunately, lugworms are, in my opinion, inferior to bloodworms as bait. However, as bloodworms become harder to find, the southern California angler is left with fewer options and lugworms have become the main alternative.

My feelings on the worms are two fold: (1) I feel they simply do not catch as many fish as bloodworms and pile and (2) lugworms have a thinner casing (meaning they do not stay on the hook as well) and they have a tendency to break apart in segments. I’ve had some worms be nearly unusable after a couple of days of use even though I keep them in a chilled cooler and handle them gently. They also have a not so nice habit of giving you a nasty bite but that’s not a problem if you’re careful, and the same danger exists with pile worms and bloodworms.

Most of the lugworms sold in SoCal appear to be a Nereidid worm, Perineris sp., and are worms imported from Asia, specifically South Korea. Some worms sold as lugworms may also be the Pacific lugworm, Abarenicola pacifica, a light-colored lugworm found in the muddy flats and low-tide sandy flats of Puget Sound in Washington state. Some may be Abarenicola vagabunda, a related species, that is found in the same areas but is blacker and rougher skinned. Most of these worms reach one foot in length but typically those found in the lugworm bait cartons are 4-6 inches long.

Although some lugworms do live in California, including Abarenicola vagabunda and its closely related cousins, Arenicola brasiliensis and Arenicola cristata, I’ve not heard of local anglers seeking them out for bait.

As with other worms, lugworms should be kept chilled in a bait cooler to keep them fresh.

Pile Worms. Most of my early pier fishing days were spent in Newport Beach or in the San Diego area. Most of the bait I used was the typical: anchovies, mussels, ghost shrimp, market shrimp, sand crabs, clams, squid and, at times, bloodworms. Then I moved to the Bay Area where I was introduced to two new baits—grass shrimp and pile worms. As for bloodworms, they were not even an option since they were not found in Bay Area bait shops. It was clear that while bloodworms were the predominate sea worm in SoCal; they had been replaced in CenCal by pile worms.

Most of the pile worms found in the bait shops were (and still are) the non-native species, Alitta virens (formerly Nereis virens), a greenish-colored worm imported from the northeastern states. They are members of the Polychaete family of worms, a family containing thousands of different species; they are segmented, centipede-looking worms, and they are primarily nocturnal creatures that have many names. One name is simply hairy worm, an appropriate name given that the Latin polychaete means many hairs. Another common name is bristleworm. They use their black tooth-like hooks to capture small creatures like beach hoppers or other worms while the bristles along the sides of the body aid in breathing. While most that are sold by bait shops are six to eight inches long, they apparently can reach as long as four feet in the wild.

This worms, more commonly called sandworm or king ragworm in the northeast, sustains a considerable industry in some states; “sandworming” apparently employs over 1,000 people in Maine. Unfortunately, the New England states can sometimes see bitterly cold weather during the winter months. When that happens the worm diggers sit their waders by the mudroom and move inside by their cozy fireplaces. West Coast anglers shake their heads and wonder what bait they should use next.

Of course the late winter, early spring months are often the best time for several species of Bay Area surfperch. Pile worms are one of the best baits on the bottom for rubberlip perch and blackperch, and are pretty close to that for white seaperch, pileperch, striped seaperch and rainbow seaperch. In addition, they are very good for kingfish (white croaker) and Pacific tomcod and excellent for sanddab, starry flounder, sand sole, and other small flatfish. No surprise on the flatfish, a long shanked hook baited with worms has been a standard rigging on the East Coast for years. In the top-water section, worms are one of the favorites of jacksmelt. And, striped bass and sturgeon gobble them up. Do handle with a modicum of care; the pincer-like jaws can provide a painful bite to careless anglers.

Today, the problem with winter weather and the uncertainty it can cause hasn’t changed but additional factors have also entered into the live bait scene—higher shipping costs, additional regulations, and closures in some areas.

The bottom line is that when pile worms are usually available they are also expensive. They are sold by the dozen, and luckily a dozen, or even a half dozen, should last all day. Given that prices today are often upwards of $10 a dozen, buy only what you will use in one day. As with most live bait, a small cooler will keep them in good shape all day. At almost $1 a worm it makes no sense to leave them out to warm up and dry.

How to use? For perch, simply string the worm on your hook, generally sizes #8 to #4 depending upon the perch. Run the hook through the body of the worm with the tip of the hook and barb exiting the worm. Do much the same with the larger fish; simply use a larger hook and a larger piece of worm or a whole worm. High/low leaders fished near the bottom are the most common rigging for bottom species but Carolina-like rigs are also popular. For jacksmelt, small pieces of worm are put on smelt leader under a float (of some type). Typically the float is at the top, the first hook about four feet down, another hook a foot below that, a third hook a foot underneath that, and the sinker down another foot.

If the prices seem high, and you don’t mind digging your own worms, there are several other close relatives that can be found on the mud flats, under rocks, or in mussel beds. The most common California pile worms are Nereis vexillosa, an iridescent green worm known as the clam worm, sand worm, or mussel worm. (See Clam Worm)

Non-Saltwater Worms

Night Crawlers. These worms are one of the most common baits for freshwater fisherman yet a bait that I never recommended for piers until recently. Increasingly it seems that many bait shops are unwilling (or unable) to carry bloodworms, pile worms, or other saltwater worms. It’s a cost issue as well as one involving the availability of the worms during certain times of the year. When you absolutely cannot acquire bloodworms or pile worms feel free to try night crawlers. They will attract some fish, especially perch, but quickly bleach out once in the water, thus needing to be changed fairly often. But, they will catch you a few fish of the fish are in the mood.