BY JACK EHRESMAN
It's nightcrawler time in Illinois, meaning anglers in the state, cans in hand, will soon fall on bended knees to pluck the juicy morsels no fish can resist.
They'll come up as soon as the frost is out of the ground and it starts raining, usually in March or April. Fishermen seek these plump worms after dark with the use of a portable light.
"To pick up a crawler, grab it just below the collar and give it a short tug. If it doesn't come out, just hold on. They'll relax in a second or so and will come out easily. Don't force them out. They could be injured," says George Sroda of Amherst Junction, Wis.
Known as "the czar of the underworld," Sroda, now 88, established his "worm laboratory" 30 years ago and has appeared with his pet crawler, Herman, on seven national television shows, including Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas and David Letterman.
He allegedly found a sickly nightcrawler, provided tender loving care and turned it into a healthy specimen. Herman measured 16 1/2 inches long during his run on TV.
"The first nightcrawlers up are generally not conditioned and are weaker than those that are found later," Sroda said. "If you plan to store crawlers, you'd be better off waiting and picking up those that appear several weeks after the first ones come up.
"Since worms are migrating and mating in spring, they are slimy. Carry a cloth in your pocket for drying hands during pickups. If they aren't coming to the surface in the evenings, sprinkle your lawns."
Sroda emphasized three things are important in keeping healthy, firm crawlers: proper temperature, moisture and food. He said the biggest mistake most people make is trying to keep them alive in their basements.
"That's okay for redworms which can stand 75 to 80 degrees, but crawlers must be kept at temperatures of 40 to 50 degrees which means refrigeration," he said.
Many fisherman transport night-crawlers on fishing vacations.
Sroda offers these tips:
• Take along a thermometer and check the bedding temperature frequently.
• Place a damp, washed burlap bag on top to keep the bedding moist.
• Keep them cool with ice cubes in a container, but don't allow them to melt into the bedding. Worms will turn white if too much moisture is added.
• Cushion the container and keep the worms from vibrating during transportation.
Sroda said there are about 8,000 species of analid worms-the ring-segmented kind-in the world, but feels the No. 1 worm is the nightcrawler.
These worms can live 20 to 25 years and will eat their own weight in food daily. The more they are fed, the faster they grow.
A crawler will burrow eight to 12 feet in the ground to find the proper temperature and moisture, even deeper during a dry spell.
Crawlers, which have brains, a crop, gizzard and intestines like a chicken, are little more than water, muscles and nerves.
And they have tremendous strength. Not enough, however, to body slam a hungry bass or catfish.
March 2000 19