Catching surf worms is very much a part of many fishing families beach holidays and a key bait resource for many avid surf fishers. They are a favoured bait for many fish along beaches but particularly sand whiting. They are also sold as a frozen/cured product or live at several bait shops.
Surf worms belong to a family of marine worms called Onuphidae with the two main species caught in Queensland being the king surf worm (Australonuphis teres) and the slimy surf worm (Australonuphis parateres).
They are widely distributed along the eastern and south-eastern coasts of Australia from about Yeppoon right down and around the coast into South Australia. All surf beaches from the Gold Coast to Fraser Island have populations of surf worms. Although there is uncertainty, large king surf worms are also thought to live in deeper water, well away from the surf zone, and perhaps at depths down to 2000m.
The maximum length of surf worms is about 3m! Now that is a big worm. Sexual maturity is reached at 42cm in length for the King and 39cm for the Slimy and they are presumed to be repeat spawners throughout their life. Spawning is thought to occur throughout the year although there may be seasonal peaks. Surf worms can live to approximately nine years of age.
Surf worms build temporary burrows by secreting mucous onto the sand to create a thin tube to live in. They prefer the swash zone on gently sloping beaches. Their distribution on a beach is highly patchy. They can be in dense concentrations (> 15 worm per metre squared) which are separated by large areas of very few worms. They spend most of their time vertically in the sand but move horizontally towards food.
Surf worms have eyespots as juveniles but lose them as they become adults and rely on smell after that. It is this acute sense of smell which means they respond rapidly to odour in seawater such as that provided by fish frames. They naturally consume bivalves such as the eugarie, crustaceans and seaweeds.
Good luck with your surf worming over the winter months!