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A Lively Traffic in Worms
Frank Graham Jr.
September 19, 1966
Thousands of hard-working Maine diggers, packers and dealers turn ugly-looking sea worms into dollar signs
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September 19, 1966

A Lively Traffic In Worms

Thousands of hard-working Maine diggers, packers and dealers turn ugly-looking sea worms into dollar signs

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Each wormer is beholden to a single dealer, who keeps varying numbers of them on his payroll, according to the current demand for bait. In the spring, when the weather is bad and the demand low, a wormer may take only 1,000 worms off the flats on any one tide. Later in the season he will double that figure. Having counted the product of his day's labor into the trays, the wormer will advise the dealer of his total. Usually the man's word will be accepted, but in some cases an audit is indicated. A man caught cheating on his count may be told to peddle his worms someplace else.

The worms are then packed into the cardboard shipping boxes, which are lined with a cool, moist seaweed called rockweed. One box holds 125 sandworms or 250 bloodworms.

"That's because the bloodworms are much hardier," Dorr said. "The sandworms are made up of all those segments, and they break up if you're not careful."

Dorr has learned from the wholesalers in New York, Florida or California just how many worms he will have to ship out each day (they are in touch with each other regularly by telephone). His wife takes the boxes of worms by pickup truck to the airport at Bangor, which is about 75 miles from Addison. There she supervises the loading of the worms aboard the regular flights to Boston and New York.

Dorr gets $22 a thousand for the sandworms, and about $30 for the bloodworms. The city wholesalers pay the freight. In New York the wholesalers distribute the worms to the smaller bait shops, who sell them to the fishermen. Costs are variable, according to the season and the demand, but a fisherman on Long Island Sound may pay 70� a dozen for his worms. Since flounders, stripers and whitefish seem to relish either species, the fisherman keeps calling for more.

To dig marine worms requires a certain initial investment. The compleat wormer will need a hoe, a bucket or other container, a pair of hip boots and access to a small boat and motor to take him to the more isolated mud flats around the islands. The "hoe" is really a short-handled rake made of spring steel. It costs about $22 and, with good care, will serve the active wormer for three years.

The techniques for harvesting sandworms and bloodworms differ as widely as those of fishing for trout and catfish. Since the bloodworms arc found just beneath the surface of the mud but do not congregate as thickly as the sandworms, the digger must move rapidly, covering a great deal of ground, to meet his quota. He works with a wide hoe, or "chopper," that has eight tines. The sandworms burrow deeper into the mud, sometimes 12 to 15 inches, and the digger combs away the mud and bites down into the hard clay or sand with his narrower, six-tined chopper.

The worms are dropped into wooden buckets or boxes and carried about the Hats. In addition to his hoe and bucket, the serious wormer may own a light, which he clips to his cap for night digging. The light consists of a strong flashlight bulb operated by a six-volt storage battery kept in a case on his belt. It is a queer sight to peer offshore on a dark night and see dozens of tiny lights bobbing up and down on the mud flats one supposed were inhabited only by herons.

The wormers earn their money. Like Olympic swimmers, the big-money wormers burn themselves out quickly. "There was a fellow at Wiscasset who dug 3,750 worms on one tide," Dorr said. "But one day this year they had to haul him off the flats. He just toppled over." The act of making one's way, bent at right angles from the waist, through acres of gulping mud without occasionally taking time to straighten up is, understandably, devilishly hard on backs and stomachs.

Worm dealers have found another outlet for their product in the firms dealing in biological specimens. The current education boom has stimulated the market for marine worms. Because it has arteries, the sandworm is especially sought after by college laboratories, and Ben Emmons, a New Jersey dealer in biological specimens, makes his head-quarters at Jonesport, Maine during the summer.

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