Are Nightcrawlers And Worms Good For Ice Fishing? Here’s What You Need to Know


by Robert Ceran

Are you an angler who likes to use nightcrawlers during the summer, but you’re not sure if they work for ice fishing?

Here’s the quick answer:

Nightcrawlers can be an excellent bait for ice fishing, depending on the fish species you want to catch.

They are one of the best ice fishing baits for all kinds of trout, and also work well for crappie and other panfish. Perch and bass like them on some days, but they hardly ever work for walleye during the winter.

As an angler you’ve probably come across nightcrawlers as a great bait for many kinds of fish during the warmer months, but you might be wondering why they not often used for ice fishing.

Well, there are two main reasons for this: nightcrawlers don’t work equally well for all species in winter, and they are harder to get, and harder to keep alive during the cold winter months.

But you may be surprised to hear that nightcrawlers are among the most effective ice fishing baits for trout, and also perform well for catching panfish.

So if you’re a trout or panfish angler, ice fishing with worms is definitely worth a try, especially if you haven’t had much success with other kinds of bait recently.

For what kinds of fish do nightcrawlers work well for ice fishing?

Here are the species for which nightcrawlers work extremely well during winter:

  • Lake trout
  • Rainbow trout
  • Brown trout
  • Salmon
  • Crappie
  • Bluegill
  • Sunfish

Many trout anglers swear by nightcrawlers as their top bait choice, and go to a lot of trouble to ensure they have a consistent supply of live ones during the winter.

There are some days when trout won’t touch any other baits, so it’s a good idea to have some worms in your bait box when you go ice fishing for trout.

Nightcrawlers also work well for catching crappie and other panfish, but you may be able to substitute them equally well with other kinds of worms or maggots.

And when it comes to perch, they sometimes work, but not all the time.

So you should probably test them side by side with other kinds of worms, leeches, as well as minnows, to see what works best for perch on that day.

If you’re a walleye angler, you’ve probably used nightcrawlers in the warm season, and know that they can be an extremely effective walleye bait in spring and summer.

However, they hardly ever work for catching walleye in winter. The reason for this is unclear, but it might be because they are a naturally occurring food in summer, but not in winter.

So for walleye, minnows and artificial lures are a much better choice of bait for ice fishing.

How to obtain nightcrawlers during the winter

If you decide to use nightcrawlers for ice fishing, your next question is probably: where can I get them in winter?

While it’s easy to dig them up in your backyard during the summer, this isn’t possible during the winter months. 

You have two options to get nightcrawlers during the winter: farm them yourself, or buy them from a tackle shop.

If you’re a keen trout angler, then farming nightcrawlers yourself is a great way to make sure you always have a good supply all year round. It’s essential to have live worms in order to get fish to bite, so you can’t keep them frozen, but need a reliable supply of living ones.

Not every tackle shop stocks nightcrawlers in winter, so you should call several shops in your location to find one that does.

Chances are you’ll quickly find some that do, especially if you’re based in an area with a lot of trout ice fishing.

A great way to improve your chances of catching fish with nightcrawlers is to use an ice fishing fish finder or flasher to locate the fish.

How to keep nightcrawlers alive during your ice fishing trip

As mentioned above, nightcrawlers need to be alive in order to get fish to bite, so if your worms freeze they become useless.

If you have a foam box that insulates them against cold temperatures, keep the worms in there on your way to the lake. And once you’re on the lake, keep the worm jar inside your jacket to keep them warm.

And if you have some worms remaining at the end of the day, don’t throw them away. You can keep them alive for a long time in your refrigerator (just make sure they never freeze).

Also, if you’re using pieces of worms on your hook, don’t put the remaining piece back in the worm jar, as that will cause all the worms to die after a short while.

If you want to be able to observe how fish react to your nightcrawler, the best option to do this is with an Aqua-Vu or Marcum underwater camera.

How to rig nightcrawlers for ice fishing

In general, you should use smaller fragments of worm during ice fishing than you would in the summer.

A great way to rig a worm fragment is to use a really small jig head, and put the fragment on the hook.

Suspend the worm about a foot above the lake bottom, and set it up with a tip up so you won’t miss a bite. You can even use a glowing jig head to attract fish. 

If you find yourself only catching small fish this way, then it’s worth trying larger worm fragments, or even a whole worm.

This helps to select for the bigger fish, since the small ones can’t get their mouth around a big bait.

Final remarks

Hopefully this has convinced you that it’s worth giving nightcrawlers a try on your next ice fishing trip.

Especially if you are a trout angler, ice fishing with worms might quickly become your go-to choice of bait.

Want to learn more? Check out our beginners guide to ice fishing.