The Upstream Worm

The "Upstream Worm" was first written about by Charles Cotton in the 5th edition of The Compleat Angler in 1676. It has been catching fish (lots of fish) ever since.

In the summer of 2016, I wrote a trip report that I had entitled Ultralight Worm Fishing. I had discovered for myself what had known to the world for 340 years. Although I had read Charles Cotton's chapters on fly fishing in Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, and had read and re-read his instructions for making horsehair lines, I don't remember ever having read his pages on worm fishing. When I last read Cotton's chapters in The Compleat Angler I was strictly a fly fisherman and hadn't fished with worms since I was a kid.

Since I wrote my Ultralight Worm Fishing trip report, I have received quite a number of comments from people who have tried it and said it was as productive for them as it had been for me. In my report, I indicated that WC Stewart had written about it almost 160 years ago.

I now know that it was described, in detail, in The Compleat Angler - one of the most popular, most reprinted books in the English language. I suspect, though, that at least within our lifetimes, people have been much more interested in Charles Cotton's flies and fly fishing than in his worm fishing. Also, his instruction on worm fishing occupies the very last few pages of the book, and truth be told, The Compleat Angler is a book that many people start but few finish (myself included).

Herewith, then, Charles Cotton's comments on what became known as fishing "The Upstream Worm."

The third way of angling by hand with a ground-bait, and by much the best of all other, is with a line full as long, or a yard and a half longer than your rod; with no more than one hair next the hook, and for two or three lengths above it; and no more than one small pellet of shot for your plumb; your hook, little; your worms, of the smaller brandlings, very well scoured; and only one upon your hook at a time, which is thus to be baited: the point of your hook is to be put in at the very tag of his tail, and run up his body quite over all the arming, and still stript on an inch at least upon the hair; the head and remaining part hanging downward. And with this line and hook, thus baited, you are evermore to angle in the streams, always in a clear, rather than in a troubled water, and always up the river, still casting out your worm before you with a light one-handed rod, like an artificial fly, where it will be taken, sometimes at the top, or within a very little of the superficies of the water, and almost always before that light plumb can sink it to the bottom; both by reason of the stream, and also that you must always keep your worm in motion by drawing still back towards you, as if you are angling with a fly. And believe me, whoever will try it, shall find this the best way of all other to angle with a worm, in a bright water especially. But then his rod must be very light and pliant, and very true and finely made, which, with a skilful hand, will do wonders, and in a clear stream is undoubtedly the best way of angling for a Trout or Grayling with a worm, by many degrees, that any man can make a choice of, and the most ease and delight to the angler. To which let me add, that if the angler be of a constitution that will suffer him to wade, and will slip into the tail of a shallow stream, to the calf of the leg or the knee, and so keep off the bank, he shall almost take what fish he pleases.


"Angling by hand" is managing the depth and drift of the bait by the way the rod is held. Besides angling by hand, the other method Cotton describes is angling with a cork or float to hold the bait off the bottom.

"Ground bait" in 1676 was a worm, grub, caddis larva, etc. as opposed to a minnow or a live mayfly.

"One hair" is a single horsehair.

"Length" is the length of a single horsehair (perhaps 24-30"), two lengths is two hairs tied end to end, and three lengths would be 6 to 8 feet.

"Plumb" is a sinker.

"Brandling" is the type of worm we call a red wiggler (scientific name eisenia fetida).

"Scoured" is kept in clean moist moss for several days. I suspect it is to empty the worm's digestive tract, but it is also said to make the worm firmer and stay on the hook better.

"The arming" where the hook is attached to the horsehair by tying silk thread around the hook and the hair (very much like laying down a layer of thread on the hook shank as the first step of tying a fly).

"Superficies" is the surface.

A number of early authors who are well known to fly fishers also wrote about worm fishing. In time this page will include some of their writings as well.

TenkaraBum Home > The Upstream Worm

“The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten” – Benjamin Franklin

"Study to be quiet." - Izaak Walton 1653

"Be sure in casting, that your fly fall first into the water, for if the line fall first, it scares or frightens the fish..." Col. Robert Venables 1662

As age slows my pace, I will become more like the heron.


The hooks are sharp.
The coffee's hot.
The fish are slippery when wet.

Beware of the Dogma

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