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CRAWLER HANGS ON AS A FAVORITE BAIT

Fred Jobe had a tackle box filled with plastic worms of every size and color at his side. But for the moment, he was ignoring the fakes.

Instead, he was reaching for the real thing -- something that wiggled on its own.

"Years ago, we had been catching a lot of nice-sized bass on plastic worms off a deep point at Smithville Lake," said Jobe. "But when we went back there one day, they just wouldn't hit. I had some night crawlers in the cooler, and I decided to try them. It didn't take us long to find out that the bass were still there.

"We caught a lot of fish that day -- and some of them 3 to 5 pounds. And most of them were on live bait.

"We caught three times as many on the night crawlers as we did on plastic worms. More than anything, that told me that it's still tough to beat the real thing."

Of course, Jobe didn't need much of a reminder. He sells worms -- the live ones -- for a living. Lots of worms. Almost 8 million a year.

The owner of Minnesota Bait and Fly Co. in Kansas City, Kan., he sells live bait retail and wholesale. He ships worms and other bait to more than 50 shops throughout Kansas, Missouri and Iowa.

And if there's one thing he's learned over the years, it's that the lowly worm is still America's bait.

"When people want a challenge, they'll use lures," Jobe said. "But when they want fish for the table, they go to live bait.

"There isn't a fish swimming that won't hit a worm."

Indeed, the worm -- the oldest of baits -- still has its place on America's fishhook.

Oh, it doesn't have the glamour or the marketing of a shiny new crankbait. It doesn't have the flash of a big spinnerbait. And it doesn't create the excitement that a topwater plug will.

When fishermen sit around at this time of the year and talk about the baits they can't wait to use, you seldom hear the worm mentioned.

But however low-profile it might be, the worm is still king at the ol' fishing hole.

"If I had to choose only one bait to use, it would be no contest. I would pick the worm," said Bob Mattucks, a fisheries biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. "It's just so versatile. You can catch so many different species on a worm.

"The big thing is that it's natural; it's something the fish are used to seeing in the water. They might stick up their noses at an artificial, but they find it hard to pass up a live worm wiggling in front of them."

So, you think that threading a worm onto a hook is just kids' stuff? Think again.

Though many children get their start in fishing by casting a hook baited with a piece of night crawler into the water and waiting for the bobber to go under, you can erase those images of the tiny sunfish they bring in.

Worms will lure the big boys, too:

Night crawlers lure trophy walleyes in Kansas each year, particularly in late May and early June when the fish recover from the spawn and hit the mud flats to feed. As the water warms, aquatic worms hatch and rise from the bottom, attracting the feeding walleyes. A live worm drifted or trolled across those flats can be very effective.

In California, live worms -- not the plastic variety -- are the preferred bait for giant bass at some lakes. One of the largest largemouths ever caught -- a 20-pound, 15-ounce monster -- was caught on a ball of night crawlers in 1973 at Lake Miramar. Since then, many other bass weighing in the teens have been caught on night crawlers fished along drop-offs and points.

For some fishermen, collecting bait is a recreation of its own.

They wait for dewy summer nights, then use flashlights to collect big night crawlers from lawns and golf courses. Either that, or they wait for the days when heavy rains wash snakelike night crawlers into streets or onto sidewalks.

But that's not where the majority of the worms you buy in the bait shops come from. Most of them are collected in Canada -- specifically the Toronto area, where soil makeup is conducive for a huge night crawler population.

There, experienced worm hunters can collect 10,000 to 15,000 night crawlers in a night, according to Chris Fry, one of the owners of DMF Bait Co., the largest wholesale bait distributor in the United States. And there's apparently good money in that work.

"The guy I'm buying my worms from tells me there are people making $60,000 to $80,000 a year up there just picking up worms," Jobe said. "It's big business."

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