What does it mean when someone says "keep your worms warm" in the following context?

I came across this when I was reading the following:

A fisherman had out-fished his companion all morning long. They used the same live bait, the same equipment and fished together in the same mountain stream. But he had almost caught his limit of fish while his friend had yet to catch even one.

“What's your secret?” asked the friend. “I haven't even gotten a bite!”

The angler mumbled an unintelligible answer, causing his companion to ask again.

The successful fisherman emptied the contents of his mouth into a cupped hand and replied: “I said, 'You have to keep your worms warm.'”

  • 6
    As Catija explains so well, it's a punchline, not an idiom. It means what it says, and says what it means.
    – J.R.
    May 4, 2016 at 16:12
  • ugh, silly joke, a pocket is warm enough & holds a bag well
    – Xen2050
    May 5, 2016 at 5:06

1 Answer 1


When combined with the implication that what the fisherman spat out into his hand was worms, the phrase "you have to keep your worms warm" becomes the punchline of the joke but there's no special meaning to the phrase... it means, literally, that the man believes that warm worms make for better fishing.

What makes the joke funny is the absurdity of the guy keeping the worms in his mouth which, by most Western considerations, would be disgusting and unpalatable, even if the solution gave you a bucketful of fish... particularly as keeping worms in your mouth isn't the only way to keep them warm, it just happens to be the solution that the fisher decided to use.

Here's another version of the joke:

Take The Bait
It was a cold winter day, when an old man walked out onto a frozen lake, cut a hole in the ice, dropped in his fishing line and began waiting for a fish to bite.

He was there for almost an hour without even a nibble when a young boy walked out onto the ice, cut a hole in the ice not too far from the old man and dropped in his fishing line. It only took about a minute and WHAM! a Largemouth Bass hit his hook and the boy pulled in the fish.

The old man couldn't believe it but figured it was just luck. But, the boy dropped in his line and again within just a few minutes pulled in another one.

This went on and on until finally the old man couldn't take it any more since he hadn't caught a thing all this time. He went to the boy and said, "Son, I've been here for over an hour without even a nibble. You have been here only a few minutes and have caught about half a dozen fish! How do you do it?"

The boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rrarm."
"What was that?" the old man asked.
Again the boy responded, "Roo raf roo reep ra rums rarrm."

"Look," said the old man, "I can't understand a word you are saying."

So, the boy spit into his hand and said, "You have to keep the worms warm!"

This version of the joke plays out the fact that the boy was speaking unintelligibly twice until he spat out the worms and repeats the phrase in a way that can be understood... and manages to follow the comedic "rule of threes"

  • 2
    Also worth saying explicitly is that the worms filling the fisherman's mouth is what caused his original answer to be unintelligible.
    – jpmc26
    May 4, 2016 at 18:33
  • 3
    @jpmc26 Technically, it's not explicit in the joke at all... which is part of why I said it's implied that his mouth is full of worms. For all we know, he spat out a wad of tobacco. Yes, whatever was in his mouth made it difficult for his enunciation but only our minds make it worms.
    – Catija
    May 4, 2016 at 18:42
  • 3
    @Catija I think jpmc26 is saying it's worth making that connection explicitly in your answer, not that it's explicit in the joke.
    – Cascabel
    May 4, 2016 at 23:15
  • What makes the joke funny is the absurdity of the guy keeping the worms in his mouth which, by most Western considerations, would be disgusting and unpalatable - I (and quite a few people I know) have certainly used this technique to keep maggots warm and lively while angling in the winter. Although, to be fair, I suspect even I would balk at doing it with worms.
    – Spratty
    May 5, 2016 at 9:59

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