The Basics Of Worm Harness Fishing

By on May 28, 2015
Max Hartman holds up a walleye caught using a worm harness. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

As modern day anglers, we have virtually unlimited lure or bait choices. From the coolest new high-tech crankbait to the simplest of live bait options, you can drive yourself crazy thinking about which presentation is the best choice for your current set of conditions, regardless of what you are fishing for.

The most common thread across many types of species-specific options is that you can probably use worms as your main source of bait. If you think back to your earliest days of fishing as a child, most likely at some point you were fishing with live worms. Sunfish, bass, catfish and even walleye all have a taste for nightcrawlers. Flash forward to your current level of sophistication that includes lots of expensive rods, reels, and tackle, not to mention your expensive electronics and wireless devices, and many of us still leave the dock with worms on board. For most Great Lakes walleye anglers, worms are a staple of our multitude of presentation options for a majority of the open water season.

The beauty of trolling worm harnesses is how many options you have to present them at the proper depth depending on your speed preference, which many times is dictated by time of the year and mood of the fish. Generically, you can fish worm harnesses from mid-April through early October, and I know plenty of anglers that start using them earlier and stick with them later. The general rule would be to fish them extremely slow early in the year, increase your speed as the water temperature warms, and then slow back down later in the year as water temperatures fall; however, worm harnesses can be fished effectively at a wide range of speeds throughout the year. The “normal” speed range for worm harnesses would be somewhere around 1.2 to 1.5 miles per hour, but speeds from 0.8 to 2.5 miles per hour are possible if you choose the right configuration.

A good selection of blades is important building worm harnesses. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

A good selection of blades is important building worm harnesses. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

There are two keys to effectively fishing your harnesses. The first is what diver or weight system you choose to take your harness to depth, and the second is what style of blade you put on the harnesses in front of your worm. The diver or weight system is critical, because at the end of the day you have to put the harness in front of the fish to get bit, and the style of blade is critical because different blade shapes function best at specific speeds.

Let’s get started with the diver or weight options. Many of your specific choices will depend on the size of your boat (specifically how fast you normally troll as dictated by your boat setup) and what type of planer boards you use, if any. I have a 20-foot fiberglass Lund multispecies boat which gives me great speed control all the way down to less than 1 mile per hour, and I normally fish with inline planer boards on each rod. Based on those variables, I usually fish with inline lead weights or lead snap weights and occasionally I will use bottom bouncers either with or without planer boards. Larger boats that run at higher speeds and most likely use large mast and double-board planer systems would usually lend themselves more towards divers that pull better at speeds exceeding 2 miles per hour. Typical divers include jet divers, dipsy divers, Tru-Trip divers, and all of the other varieties of similar style divers.

Regardless of which style suites your boat best, you need to match your harness setup and blade style to your speed. My general rule is that I will use Colorado-style blades (the round-shaped blades) up to about 1.6 miles per hour, and, if I need to go much faster than 1.6, I will switch to willow-leaf blades for high speeds. Colorado blades pull harder and create more thump in the water because of their large, rounded profile compared to willow-leaf blades that are longer and narrower, allowing them to spin faster at high speeds and create more visual flash. There are plenty of hybrid shapes that range between Colorado and willow leaf, and they can be effective somewhere in the middle of the speed range with Colorado and willow leaf performing best at the opposite ends of the speed range.

Different colors for worm harnesses can be used for different situations. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Different colors for worm harnesses can be used for different situations. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Beyond your choice of divers or weights, and which style of blade to use, I try to keep the rest fairly simple. I tie all of my own harnesses for consistency. I use 20-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line that I cut to length at the maximum reach of my arm span (slightly less than 6 feet). That way, they are all the same size without needing to measure them. There are tons of hook options, but I generally stick to two single hooks (no trebles) with a wide gap octopus hook for the front hook and a more standard octopus hook on the rear. Both hooks will either be size 1 or size 1/0 and are tied with a snell knot to hold them tightly inline so that they don’t slip or move around. I use enough 6-millimeter beads to keep the back edge of the spinner blade forward of the front hook when it is hanging vertically. That way, the spinner blade never interferes with the hook up when the fish hits from behind. I usually add one bead in front of the blade for color to finish the rig out.

Don’t get too carried away with color choices. For Lake Erie, I use mostly size 5 or 6 Colorado blades in gold or copper finishes. I like blades that are painted with bright color accents like pink, chartreuse, orange, purple or green, and I try to choose bead colors that match or contrast the colors on the blade. I rarely use more than 1 or 2 colors of beads on any single harness. Most of my bead combinations include white, chartreuse, pink or orange.

Worm harnesses are extremely effective for catching numbers of walleye all over the Great Lakes region. Tie some harnesses, get some weights or divers, find a school of walleye, and starting spinning your way to your daily limit. Watching planer boards jerk back from a walleye inhaling a worm will take you back to the days of watching fish pull your bobber underwater while you were fishing with a hook and worm at your local creek or farm pond as a child.

Top image: Max Hartman holds up a walleye caught using a worm harness. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

About Travis Hartman

FishSens pro Travis Hartman is a two-time WBSA Lake Erie Walleye Trail points champion and 2015 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship qualifier. He has 21 top 10 finishes and is also a licensed charter captain.


  1. Mark

    June 11, 2017 at 5:42 pm

    Thanks for all the tips and tricks on crawler harnesses it truly helps us all

  2. nabdl

    December 1, 2018 at 4:10 am

    This is a great demonstration. Very well organized tutorial. Lot to learn here. Thanks for taking the time to share this.

  3. Pingback: Where to catch walleye on the Columbia River - Columbia River Fishing Adventures

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