Nightcrawlers for Catfish

Nightcrawlers for Catfish

Back in the 1970s and '80s, folks who kept tabs on such things often declared that the nightcrawler capital of the world was situated at 13650 238th Street in rural Leavenworth County, Kansas.

The proprietor of this 10-acre domain was Elden Bailey. Bailey still is the sultan of this small and distinct province, but nowadays he is better known as the creator of the Bailey Magnet than as the ­nightcrawler magnate.

Incidentally, the Bailey Magnet is one of the hottest selling soft-plastic jig bodies in the Midwest. Of course, it is Bailey's favorite lure, and he often tips a ­jighead-and-Bailey Magnet combination with a ­nightcrawler.

Bailey also is known as one of the finest vegetable gardeners in eastern Kansas. During the mid-1990s and stretching into the new millennium, when his zeal for fishing and nurturing nightcrawlers waned a tad, he and his wife, Jan, converted large segments of their 10 acres into garden plots. Nowadays they produce a multitude of lush tomatoes, melons, and assorted vegetables that they sell to city folks.


Bailey says many parallels exist in producing a cornucopia of succulent vegetables, nurturing the world's finest nightcrawlers, and catching fish. And he has been successful at all of those endeavors.


Besides his green thumb, talents for nurturing nightcrawlers, and abilities at designing lures, Bailey is one of the heartland's finest multispecies anglers. He possess a special knack for catching catfish, crappie, white bass, wipers, and walleye. His biggest channel catfish, which engulfed one of his specially nurtured nightcrawlers, weighed 22.2 pounds.


Starting with his first tournament victory at Pomona Lake in 1968, Bailey reigned as king of the Kansas walleye tournament scene for nearly two decades. One reason for his dominance was the quality of the nightcrawlers he used for bait.

And across the past four decades, Bailey has used an astonishing number of crawlers to catch an incredible number of fish. In fact, he estimated that during one spring and early summer of heavy fishing, he single-handedly poked a hook through more than 5,000 nightcrawlers. Not only has Bailey handled thousands of crawlers, he also has developed some time-tested procedures for collecting, nurturing, and storing them.

Collecting Crawlers


To Bailey's persnickety eyes, store-bought nightcrawlers often are in poor health and too flaccid to be properly fished. He ascribes to the theory that tough, healthy, and active crawlers attract more fish than do sickly and languid ones. Moreover, the tough-skinned and muscular crawlers become a quasi-hook-guard when an angler probes the rocky environs where channel cats spawn.

Even though nightcrawlers for catfish are virtually impossible to raise, Bailey found a way to cultivate wild ones on his 10-acre domain. He accomplished this task back in the 1960s by burying 30 large coffee cans filled with crawlers at strategic spots on his property. He refrained from using fertilizers and pesticides on these areas. Ultimately it became a nightcrawler nirvana, and Bailey, of course, has harvested thousands of them.

Bailey finds that cool damp spring nights are the best for ones for collecting crawlers. The coolness, Bailey says, makes the crawlers a touch lethargic and easier for him to grab. In contrast, folks often find it a flummoxing ordeal on a warm humid night to get their fingers around crawlers that can move and bury themselves with the swiftness of a power drill.


The crawlers' prostomium, which is a flap that covers the nightcrawler's mouth, is extremely sensitive to light and vibration. Therefore, they are easy to spook. That's why Bailey employs an indirect light and walks gingerly when he hunts them. For light, Bailey partially covers a flashlight with his fingers and allows the light rays reflect off his pants.

Storing Crawlers

After collecting the nightcrawlers, Bailey stores them in four refrigerators. He sets the temperature of the refrigerators at 45°F. At this temperature, he can store as many as 4,000 nightcrawlers.

In each refrigerator, he places two wooden boxes. The dimensions of each box measure 13 inches wide by 28 inches long by 8 inches high. On top of each box, there is a board with an oval opening and lid. The lid is attached to the top by a hinge. The design of this top and lid prevents the nightcrawlers from escaping.

Bailey fills each box with Doc's Champion Worm Bedding, which is manufactured by a division of Central Fiber Corporation of Wellsville, Kansas. According to the manufacturer's instructions, 1-pound of bedding material supports 30 nightcrawlers, but Bailey doesn't abide by that limitation. His storage system allows him to store more crawlers per pound of bedding than the manufacturer recommends.

Initially each pound of bedding material is mixed with 1-quart of water. And once the water and bedding material are perfectly mixed and cooled to about 50°F, Bailey puts 4 inches of it in each wooden box.

Then he places the nightcrawlers on top of the bedding material. He also leaves the lid of the box open so that rays of light will shine on the nightcrawlers. The light provokes the nightcrawlers to bury themselves into the bedding material.

The ones that don't bury themselves within a few hours are considered to be sickly, and they are discarded. After the original purging of frail and sick nightcrawlers, Bailey frequently examines his stock, searching for sick ones and removing them so that diseases won't spread and adversely affect the health of the other nightcrawlers.

It is necessary to keep the bedding material moist throughout the box. But it never should be too wet. In regard to moisture ratio, Bailey says it is best to err on the dry side rather the wet side of the quotient.

Doc's bedding material contains an organic food source, but Bailey says that after 10 days the nigthcrawlers will have consumed most of it. Therefore, Bailey adds three 1/2-inch wide and 1/8-inch thick lines of cornmeal across the width of the box. After that application, similar proportions of cornmeal are added about every 10 days.

Transporting Crawlers

When he goes fishing, Bailey puts a day's supply of nightcrawlers and bedding material in a dry Styrofoam minnow bucket, and he secures the lid on that bucket and places it in a large cooler surrounded by ice.

Upon arriving at the lake, Bailey places a quart of lake water and a cup of ice into an 8-inch wide by 11-inch long and 7-inch high cooler. He also washes the bedding material off of several dozen nightcrawlers with lake water. Then he puts those clean nightcrawlers into the cooler with the mixture of ice and lake water. And throughout the day, he adds more clean nightcrawlers, as well as ice and fresh lake water.

The nightcrawlers assimilate the oxygen that is in the ice and lake water. At the same time, the icy lake water toughens the skin of nightcrawlers, and it makes them extremely lively.

At the end of the outing, he places the unused crawlers on top of the bedding material in the wooden storage box. And after a few hours have lapsed, he examines the box and removes the crawlers that failed to bury themselves in the bedding.

If an angler doesn't have time to hunt and collect a supply of native nightcrawlers, Bailey says that bait-store crawlers should be purchased a week before the angler plans to use them. After purchasing them, anglers should then use the same routine that Bailey employs for culling and storing his collection of native crawlers. "A week in Doc's bedding material will turn a wimpy, store-bought crawler into a better creature," Bailey says.

Using Crawlers

Across the heartland and southern plains, spring is traditionally an excellent time to entice channel catfish to engulf a hook impaled with a gob of nightcrawlers.

At the flatland lakes in Kansas, catmen regularly fish shallow shorelines, focusing on root wads, stumps, laydowns, snags, brushpiles, and freshly flooded willow trees and buck brush during the Prespawn Period in April into early June. Many of these objects are situated in water as shallow as 2 feet. Often the best areas are about halfway inside feeder creek arms, such as Slough Creek at Perry Lake, Kansas.

To work such areas, anglers normally anchor their boat a short casting distance from the object or series of objects that they are probing, and cast a basic sliprig festooned with a wad of nightcrawlers. If they fail to garner a bite within 15 minutes, they move, and they keep moving until find an area that holds a significant population of cats.

The channel cat spawning season is another fine time for catmen to wield crawlers. One of the best areas to use a crawler during the spawn is along boulder-strewn or riprap shorelines. The channel cats spawn in the crevices between the rocks on these shorelines.

To probe such areas for spawning cats, some anglers prefer using a bobber that is placed 3 to 5 feet above a gob of nigthcrawlers on a 2/0 wide-gap hook. A 3/0 split shot is affixed about 6 inches above the hook.

From a boat, anglers cast the float rig parallel to the shoreline into 3 to four 4 of water. Then they slowly retrieve it, allowing the nightcrawler to graze across the countless crevices and potential spawning beds.

A more versatile tactic involves employing a 1/16-ounce weedless jighead that is formed around a 3/0 hook. On the hook of the jig, an angler impales a wad of nightcrawlers.

The advantage of the weedless jig is that anglers can cast it from a boat to the water's edge and slowly retrieve it, allowing it to bounce gingerly on the rocks, into 10 feet or more of water. By probing a variety of depths with each cast, anglers can readily determine where the bulk of the most aggressive catfish are abiding.

It is similar to the way bass anglers work a jig. In fact, some anglers dub this jig tactic "bassing for cats." And occasionally it even inveigles a flathead catfish in the 10- to 20-pound range.

Once summer arrives and the channel catfish have recovered from the rigors of the spawn, many of them develop a fondness for gizzard shad. But legions of chummers across the southern plains have shown the angling world that channel cats are omnivorous creatures even when the waterways are teaming with young and vulnerable shad. These catmen employ fermented grains to attract and to stimulate channel catfish; then they con countless channel cats to consume a nightcrawler.

Many of these chummers are walleye anglers who have recently begun spending their midsummer days pursuing channel catfish at such traditional walleye coverts as main-lake humps, submerged roadbeds and bridges, and brushpiles situated along drop-offs on long main-lake points. At these locales, these "walleye anglers" can be seeing tossing several cups of fermented grains into the water. Then they employ the same jighead-and-nightcrawler combination that they use to entice walleyes during May and June. But instead of tipping the jig with the crawler, it is impaled by folding it into a loose wad. So in essence, these anglers are "walleying for cats."

Cralwer Collection Tips

1.Some nightcrawler aficionados have discovered that covering the lens of a flashlight with a piece of red cellophane reduces the intensity of the light, which prevents the crawlers from becoming startled and eluding an anglerʼs grasp.

2.An opportunity for city folks to quickly collect several hundred nightcrawlers occurs when a warm and substantial rain falls during an early spring or mid-autumn night. And as the water begins to gush down the gutters of the street toward the sewer inlets, a large piece of screen wire is placed across the mouth of a storm sewer inlet. Following the installation of the screen, it is checked every 15 minutes. During the best spring rains, massive handfuls of crawlers can be extracted from the screen at each 15-minute interval. This method works best in older urban neighborhoods where yards slope towards the street and folks refrain from using heavy doses of pesticides and fertilizers on their yards.

3.The Schmidtlein family of Topeka, Kansas, gathers nightcrawlers by flooding them out of their boroughs in the late afternoon or early evening. They install a flushing meter on a fire hydrant, and they flood a large section soil in an area that is known to propagate massive numbers of crawlers.

"Within 10 minutes of a through soaking of a good area, the ground will look like spaghetti," Dave Schmidtlein says. "Itʼs not uncommon to gather 40 to 50 dozen per hour per person."

According to Schmidtlein, nightcrawlers canʼt tolerate the chlorine that is added to the city water supply. Therefore, the captured crawlers are immediately washed in fresh well water. After the sickly and small crawlers are discarded, Schmidtlein puts the crawlers in a container filled with shredded paper and places them in a refrigerator.

*Ned Kehde, Lawrence, Kansas, is an In-Fisherman Field Editor. He's a keen fisherman, observer, and reporter about fishing and has written for In-Fisherman for over a decade.

Why not use those fresh nightcrawlers and get right to night catfishing!

Billy Boy Catfish Fanatic Lighted Flo-Glo Bobber

Built for cat fans looking to dangle beefy livebait, this ultra-buoyant, 3-inch foam float also shines for most any nocturnal fishing mission requiring a large, lighted bobber. Illumination is provided by a Flo-Glo Light Stick inserted in the top. Each bobber comes with four Light Sticks, which may also be purchased separately. Other nice touches include extra weight to boost casting distance, and a bottom-mounted, clip-on design, allowing the bobber to be fished as a slip or fixed float. $4.99. bettstackle.net

E.B's Lighted Reversible Slip Bobber

There's a lot to like about this slick slipbobber. Dual internal switches and multiple options in LED lights let you choose between six different lighting colors, which is handy whenever you deploy more than one bobber and want to keep track of which one's which. Powered by four replaceable lithium batteries, it's durable and resists leaking. Available in 1- and 1.25-inch diameters. $12.91. ebsbobbers.com

Gamakatsu Fire Tip

Powered by a gutsy lithium pin battery, the Fire Tip lives up to its name, yielding light visible at up to 100 yards under the right conditions. We also like the soft rubber tip and high-impact plastic body, which are extremely durable. While Gamakatsu once offered the tail-finned Night Flyer and a larger size option in the Fire Tip, these are out of production, though with persistence you can still find them at some tackle shops and online. The remaining production model, the 4¼-inch Fire Tip, floats 1/5 ounce of weight, and is a great option for panfish and walleye rigs not requiring major ballast. Gamakatsu promises that replaceable batteries, which it produces, last more than 24 hours. $17.84. gamakatsu.com

Little Joe Nite Brite Lighted Pole Float

Thanks to time-tested Nite Brite technology, this top-shelf, center-slip balsa float fires up 20 times brighter than most conventional lighted bobbers. We also like the replaceable E.L. battery/light combo, which is easy to turn on or off by simply pushing or pulling its moveable top. Perfect for presenting oversized livebait to trophy catfish and other large predators, the float is available in 6-, 8- and 10-inch sizes, in weighted and unweighted options. $5.84-$8.91. lindyfishingtackle.com

Mr. Crappie Lighted Flo-Glo Bobber

This little hard-foam float is a top option when you need a small, sensitive bobber for panfish. Available in 3 sizes: 1¼-inch round, 1½-inch pear, and 2½-inch cigar, all of which may be fished as slip or fixed floats. Comes with four high-vis Flo-Glo Light Sticks, which are inserted in the top of the bobber, one at a time, of course. $4.99. bettstackle.net

Rod-N-Bobb's Lucky Jack Lighted Bobber

Easy to see and easy to use, the Lucky Jack relies on a replaceable light/battery stick that offers up to 21 hours of runtime and may be switched on and off to conserve juice. Available in four sizes, 4¼ through 5¼ inches, and three light colors. $8.49. rod-n-bobbs.com

Tackle 2000 Night Stalker Rocket Bobber

Glow bobbers eliminate the need for batteries or light sticks, and this one is a hit. The Night Stalker brings the easy-casting properties of the original Rocket Bobber to the table, along with a fine glow after just two minutes of charging with any common light source. Fishable fixed or as a slipfloat, it also features a slit in the top that doubles as a hook disgorger on small fish. Available in 4¾- and 6¼-inch sizes. $3.50. tackle2000.com

Thill Nite Brite

An iconic option for the night shift, the versatile Night Brite center slider features a replaceable E.L. battery-and-light combo that makes it easy to turn on the light. Just unscrew the high-vis yellow cap and push in the battery top. When you're done fishing, simply pull it back out. Available in 4- and 5-inch sizes with red, green, and yellow light options. May also be fished as a fixed float. $7.69. lindyfishingtackle.com

Thill Splash Brite

Ease of use is amazing with the fully automatic Splash Brite, which lights up when it hits the water. No buttons or batteries, just cast it out and the bobber does the rest. The built-in battery lasts over 30 hours, after which you have a great daytime slipfloat. Available in three sizes, capable of suspending 1/16-, 1/8-, and 3/16-ounce cargos. We also like the premium brass grommet, which aids line flow and wards off nicks. $5.79-$5.89. lindyfishingtackle.com

Rod-N-Bobb's Revolution X Lighted Bobber

Rod-N-Bobb's expanded their night game with the new Revolution X series, which blends premium, vintage balsa bobber designs with the company's 1.5-inch Beacon Lightsticks. Available in ½-inch pencil, 7/8-inch oval, and 1-inch oval shapes that may be fished as slip or fixed floats. $3.99. rod-n-bobbs.com

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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