According to my knowledge, in fly fishing ‘bloodworm’ may refer to three different things: 1) Red midge larvae, 2) reddish coloured freshwater annelids (aquatic oligochaetes that are the freshwater analogs of terrestrial earthworms) including tubifex worms (sold as ‘bloodworm’ in frozen blocks to feed aquarium fish), and then 3) the well known marine bloodworm (a polychaete worm) popularly used to catch large white steenbras in our country. All three have a reddish colour in common, which is due to haemoglobin or haemoglobin-like substances in their bodies, which give them a pink, orange, or rusty brown to red colour (and sometimes bright red like the oxygen-bound haemoglobin in oxygen rich human blood!).
While marine bloodworm are difficult to imitate, mainly due to their ogre-sized bodies, the freshwater ones are much easier to copy with flies and therefore I will focus on these in this article:
Midge fly fishing bloodworm imitations
Many midge larvae in the family Chironomidae (or simply called chironomid midges) have a haemoglobin-like substance in their hemolymph giving them a pink or red colour, hence the name ‘bloodworm’. They are widely spread and can be quite abundant in river, dam and sewerage system substrates where they often live in tubes that are attached to the bottom.
Besides sometimes seeing the exposed larvae drifting in the current or crawling over the riverbed, I’ve also often come across larvae still in their silt-laden tubes, drifting through the current. Then there are the classic red buzzer pupae which everyone reading this must have seen twitching near the surface of a garden pond (or even in bird baths).
Popular fly patterns that imitate some of the larval stages of red chironomid midges include classic patterns like the Atomic Worm, smaller San Juan worms, the Zulu, Red Tag wet fly and the Claret Buzzer. These have worked well for many fish species over decades all over the world.
However, simply because of the fish I target and the way I prefer to fish for them in South Africa, I personally like fishing Brassie nymphs that may imitate the reddish midge larvae or their pupae – the weight of the beads helping to get these flies down quicker in the water column and also make contact quickly with an indicator so that takes are detected more easily; and Zulus and Zulu-like variations, as well as a modified squirmies imitating red midge larvae ‘peeping’ out of their silt-laden tubes (very much like the ‘peeping’ caddisfly larvae), again also because the species I target (and especially yellowfish and other big cyprinids) eat them better in my experience, than the more traditional flies mentioned previously.
- Chironomid midge larval and pupa imitations:
- Alternative imitations for midge larvae in silt-laden tubes:
Annelid ‘bloodworm’ imitations
(Live annelid photographs by Christian Fry)
Annelids are way more ubiquitous in our freshwater fisheries than I thought; a good example of this is when we drifted the Orange River with Christian Fry (a freshwater ecologist) in 2019 and while collecting aquatic invertebrates he quickly gathered some reddish annelids. I was very surprised and asked how often he finds them and he replied with ‘often’ and explained that they are actually very common and the equivalent of freshwater earthworms in our rivers and dams:
- Flies that may imitate freshwater annelids:
While bigger San Juan worms may imitated freshwater annelids, not many other classic patterns copy these invertebrates. San Juan worms are hard to beat in some waters and have also been widely accepted as a good, general worm pattern for especially trout and one cannot argue that they work well; but I do find them to lack movement. The rubber squirmy material may still be frowned upon by many fly anglers (and was even banned from competitive fly fishing), but I – and fish – love the movement that the rubber provides (these flies are also good examples of cross-over patterns that although tied to imitate larger worms like annelids, they may also be taken as large, red midge larvae):
To get a high res print copy of Christian’s freshwater invertebrate poster go to: www.freshwaterinvertebrates.co.za