The Bloodworm -
Monster of the Deep
Some aquarium keepers know the bloodworm as they are often sold as dried food. And some lucky still-water fly fishermen also know them - they'll often put a fish pulling the end of your line.
My first experiences with them came when I caught a fish down deep that occasionally be "spitting up" little tiny red worms as I landed him. But I saw this only a few times and didn't attach much significance. Then last year on a pond at Callaway Gardens, I found, on several consecutive days, bloodworms floating in the surface film. These bloodworms were big (see scan at left) - up to an inch and over in length and a beautiful, bright, translucent red. What really got my attention, however, were the vicious, slashing surface strikes I was also seeing. I took a few fish on various dries and emergers, but had nothing in my box that looked like the huge red worms. So began my quest for info on the bloodworm.
The bloodworm is actually the larva or pupa of a midge, but not the diminutive little fly we are accustomed to on trout streams. Cliff Weber, an entomologist at Auburn University, tentatively identified the bloodworm as Chironomus plumosus, a common large chironomid (midge) in ponds and lakes. The identification was tentative, as exact categorization is almost impossible. There are thousands of midge species, existing in almost every country in the world. The bloodworms are a uniquely adapted species, able to live in the oxygen-depleted depths of a pond. Their color and name comes from the hemoglobin in their body, allowing them to store quantities of oxygen and exist in deep, low-oxygen levels of the lake (the hypolimnion). For more details on the bloodworm, visit Ralph Cutter's California School of Flyfishing or BC Adventures (there's lots of good stuff on both these sites).
In my research and correspondence with Auburn University, I was unable to find a satisfactory explanation as to why these larvae (not emergent pupae) where in the surface film. Under normal conditions, they only leave the bottom of the lake to replenish oxygen levels and are not known to come to the surface to do this. Possible theories included wind/wave action, lake turnover, or uprooting by foraging fish or turtles - Auburn entomologists gave little credence to either explanation. But, whatever....as they say, don't look a gift horse in the mouth. So I went to the bench and started tying big bloodworms. Since then, I have caught largemouth bass, various sunfish, and stillwater trout with bloodworm imitations in several locations.
The photo at left shows a big Callaway bluegill that has gorged itself on bloodworms. He was trying to spit my fly as I brought him in - there were literally dozenss of the larva in his mouth (and no telling how many in his gut). When the fish tune in on the bloodworms, they do it with a passion.
The flies are quite an easy tie - generally a bit of red thread on a curved hook or a straight hook with the body extending into the bend. Many use a bit of rabbit or marabou as a tail to extend the length and add to the movement of the fly. Perhaps the Northwest is best known for bloodworms in the deep stillwater lakes, and many of the patterns originate there. If you tie an emerger, a small dark wingcase and white marabou or CDC gill tufts can be added fore and aft. I tried lots of different ones (unable to resist the urge to get a little fancy), but a bit of red floss or yarn on a hook has been as successful as any.
Bloodworm fishing is perhaps, almost simultaneously, the most boring and the most exciting fishing there is. Bloodworms move thru the water in a very inefficient manner, wiggling a bit but making little forward progress. Hence, their imitations are fished very slowly. The norm is to cast the fly out on a sinking line or on a very long leader (perhaps with a strike indicator), let it sink as deep as the leader allows or to the bottom with a sinking line, and then retrieve it at a very bare creep with lots of pauses. A 40' cast should take up to several minutes to retrieve. This is so slow you could fall asleep in your float tube - boring! But for some reason, when fish take the blood, they absolutely slam it. I have never had a harder hit - numerous times I have broken the fish off due to inattention, and on several occasions have almost lost my rod. The fish seem to love the fly; maybe they are just cruising an area rapidly and veer off when they see the worm, and take it on the run. Or, some say, the fish sees the slow rise of the bloodworm, then swims above it and takes it on the way down. Whatever the reason, this has been my experience and one echoed by others who fish the bloodworm. So don't let the slow retrieve lull you - or you may be swimming for your rod.