University of Minnesota
minnesota writing project
center for writing

Minnesota Writing Project.Center for Writing's home page.

Janet Laven

janet laven reading©2011

Nightcrawler Hunting

As a kid, one of the highlights of my summer was the Annual Nightcrawler Hunt in our suburban backyard. The exciting prospect of staying up well past my bedtime was surpassed only by the privilege of an outdoor hunting adventure with Dad.

Preparation for the Hunt began in mid-afternoon when Dad started the water sprinklers to saturate the backyard garden. This lured unsuspecting crawlers out of the safety of their burrows, up to the surface of the wet mud after dark. Nightcrawlers are prime bait for fishing: 6-8 inches of slimy pinkish-brown invertebrate that stretch even longer when you’re trying to extract them from a hole and they grasp anything that will prevent their capture.

I remember watching the Nightcrawler Hunt from the window for several years before I was finally old enough to participate. Sitting in the darkened kitchen, I watched flashlights flicker on and off as Dad and my two older sisters captured crawlers, then came in triumphantly, boasting of their bucket of bait. I was eager to join in this family tradition.

When I was eight, Dad decided I had the dexterity and patience to join in the hunt. By then, my older sisters had lost interest in this great sport and my little brother was too young to participate. We’d talked about the hunt for days now, but still Dad asked at the supper table, “Who’s going nightcrawler hunting tonight?” as if he didn’t know.

“I am!” I volunteered, as my sisters mumbled something about having other plans.

“Great!” He said, “We start when it’s dark.”

I could hardly wait! After supper, Dad and I checked to see that the garden was good and wet. The moisture from the sprinkler made the whole backyard smell like a summer rainstorm: wet and warm. I helped Dad scoop mud into a Kemps ice cream bucket, a temporary home for the worms.

Back inside, I paced the house, looking for something to do while I waited impatiently for the sun to set. Finally, at dusk, I pulled on my long-sleeve top and jeans, tube socks and tennis shoes. When nightfall came and the backyard was pitch black, I peeked out the window to look for Dad with his flashlight. While I was still scared of the dark, I knew I was safe with Dad. I stepped outside, coated myself generously with OFF mosquito repellant, and I was ready! The cheerful chirping of crickets filled my ears as I walked across the wet grass that soaked my canvas sneakers. Dad eagerly flipped on his flashlight to show me a few nightcrawlers in the muddy bucket, and my training session began.

Side by side, Dad and I crept to the edge of the garden, darkened flashlights in hand. When Dad gave the signal, I flipped the switch, casting a circle of light on the wet black soil as Dad swooped in like a hawk to capture a juicy wet crawler. “Got ‘em!” he exclaimed proudly, tossing the worm into the pail. I was in awe of my dad’s tremendous speed.

After watching him repeat this well-honed skill several times, I was eager for my turn as crawler catcher. My first attempts were unsuccessful. This was harder than it looked. As soon as I turned on my flashlight, those slimy worms retreated into their holes faster than soda through a straw. I was the enemy, and they knew it. Sometimes I’d grab the end of the worm, only to be met by a surprisingly strong pull from the crawler. Sometimes, the resistance was so strong, it would break in two and I was left with half a worm.

“The trick,” Dad coached, “is to grab ‘em fast, and pin ‘em down so he can’t pull back into his tunnel.” After a few more demonstrations from Dad, I was eager to try again.

“Got‘em!” I said with a smile, as I held up my first catch. I admired the crawler for a moment before dropping him into the bucket.

“You did it!” Dad exclaimed, proud of his third daughter.

I swooped down to capture another. “Darn!” I complained, as it slipped through my fingers.

“That’s ok,” Dad encouraged. “Try again.”

Eventually, my perseverance paid off. “Got it!” I said as I added another worm to the bucket.

“I think you’re ready to set out on your own,” Dad suggested, boosting my confidence.

While he stayed nearby, I captured a few more sluggish nightcrawlers before the mosquitoes set in with a vengeance. Finally, we combined our catch, covered the bucket, and brought it to the cool basement for the night.

As I got ready for bed, I was too excited to sleep. Proud memories of my first Nightcrawler Hunt replayed in my head, competing with the anticipation of tomorrow’s adventure. In the morning, we’d go fishing!