No other fly in all of fly fishing is both so loved and hated as the San Juan Worm. The simplicity of the tying process, coupled with the fact that it is meant in many ways to resemble that same drowned worm that the bait fishing brethren dunk under the old red and white bobber, seems to inspire the hate. Their undeniable functionality in the water, the low material cost, the wide range of seasons and water conditions in which they work, and the fact that nearly every fisherman in the world has stuck a nice fish or two using them, inspires the love.
Through the years, I've heard these little chenille monsters called every name in the book. The very suggestion of throwing one on to start the day brings comments, 'so that's the kind of day it's going to be', or 'really don't think anything else is fishing huh?'. Unfortunately that's the way most see these tentacled gems are seen by most fisherman. But the reality is, these bugs are more than just a last resort, especially when it comes to early season fishing.
As of three or four years ago, I kept my worm box buried away in the bottom of my boat bag, usually underneath an ancient clear box filled with faded and rotting Dave's Hoppers. Every spring when the pre-runoff trickle started clouding up the water on the Yellowstone I'd scramble through the pile, brush past the Dave's and find the box I labeled with my trusty label maker when I was 14. I'd reach for one of the standard bugs I'd spent hours creating when I was first learning to tie and before you knew it, I had a red, pink, wine, purple, tan, or brown worm up top and a midge or micro may underneath. If I felt adventurous, I'd throw on something with a gold or pink bead in the middle, [gasp] how rebellious and adventurous I know.
Then, two years ago, I went to float the Upper Madison and things changed. I went with a good friend of mine and his buddy recently returned from Chile. Though it was early in the year and the water was quite clear, they covered the bugs with their initial offering that I had wanted to try, and two hours of hard fishing from two good sticks had yielded only one roll. For whatever reason, I decided to throw a rubber legs with a worm. Nothing about that day lent itself to fishing a worm as I had traditionally fished them. Water color, temp, flows, everything said small mayflies and midges. But I asked if anyone happened to have a worm handy, something to save me the trouble of digging through my boxes. Low and behold, old Chile Palmer pulls a puck out of his jacket and tosses it my way. Purple and tan, wine and brown, pink and purple, all with orange thread. I'd fished similar bugs before but typically in cloudy water and with limited success. But not willing to shift my preconceived plan, I took a deep breath, accepted my heathen nature, grabbed a pink and purple bastard, and threw in.
Since that day, I've bought and tied every crazy two-toned variation of San Juan Worms that I can think of and hammered fish on virtually every iteration, especially early. From tailwaters to freestones, I've seen more fish boated on worm variants in the last two years than on any midge pattern. Far too often, fisherman see worms as a backup or a hailmary, but more often than not, they are just a great bug that fish instinctively respond to. That doesn't mean you can simply throw on the craziest color mix you can find in any temp, clarity, and flow and catch fish, but you can pay attention to what's going on and logically shift your worm selection much like you'd choose a streamer color. More chocolaty water usually calls for brighter bugs (reds, orange, bright pink variants, bead variants, etc), an overcast day with clear water is typically most productive with dark bugs (purple, wine, dark brown, etc), and clear water with clear skies is usually best left to naturals (tan, pale pink, wine, with subtle thread color). It is also important to acknowledge where you're fishing when addressing worm size. Rivers with cut banks that frequently color up typically lead to fish populations that are more accustomed to large worms in the water (even when clear) where as canyon and bouldered rivers are commonly better suited for slightly smaller worms.
Worm fishing though, has no real right or wrong method, in fact, the reason more cut and dry tactics don't necessarily exist for worms is because most people simply toss one on when they have a feeling and think nothing of the particular color or variant itself. The mindset being that one color is essentially as good as the next. Nothing could be further from the truth. Diversifying your worm box, focusing on two-toned variations, and adopting an attitude that allows you to see them as a go to dialed in bug rather than a wasted top fly that might grab a fish or two will certainly pay dividends early!
So knock a little dust off of that ancient worm box and take an hour on the vice to triple your collection for $4. Have fun with it, experiment, maybe even try the 'Christmas Worm' pictured above. Regardless, give these two-toned animals a shot when everyone else is whipping Rainbow Czechs and Ray Charles' around or throw it under a bead set up and really get dirty. Lastly, drop me a line and let me know how ya did!