SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
August 27, 1979
For eons, the earthworm has survived floods, drought, hungry robins and even the dread worm hunters
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August 27, 1979

They Crawl By Night

For eons, the earthworm has survived floods, drought, hungry robins and even the dread worm hunters

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Thus pursuing their self-interests, earthworms have a critical, continuing and immensely constructive influence on soil quality. Their tunnels loosen and aerate the earth and improve drainage. The organic matter they eat and take underground is composted more rapidly and thoroughly than would be the case if it were left on the surface. In the worm it is mixed with mineral-rich grit the animal has sucked up far underground. This instant humus is returned to and spread around the surface as castings. Each year a normal worm population will produce such topsoil at the rate of 20 to 40 tons per acre. Studies in controlled plots, where the number of worms can be experimentally increased and decreased, have demonstrated that they have a markedly beneficial effect on the growth rate, vigor and productivity of wheat, peas, beans, millet, barley, rye and meadow grass, among other floral species. In some cases the judicious addition of earthworms has doubled crop yields.

It is their function as nature's own Rototillers and fertilizer spreaders that brought earthworms to the admiring attention of Aristotle, Darwin and a good many other authorities. However, important as their ecological role is, worms perform it so quietly and unobtrusively that it commonly goes unnoticed and seems no more remarkable than water flowing downhill. The point where most of us meet and think specifically about worms is at the business end of a fishhook.

Because the natural range of fish and fishbaits does not ordinarily overlap, someone, sometime, must have experienced a eureka-like flash of insight into how very attractive these animals, if properly presented, would prove to blue-gills, perch, bass, pike, muskellunge and even (though purists sometimes pretend it is not true) trout. When this important discovery was made, and by whom, are irretrievably lost in the debris of ancient history, but we do know that fishbaits have been fishbaits for a very long time. All the spaniels and setters, falcons and ferrets taken together probably have not made such a contribution to sport as has Lumbricus terrestris. To be sure, lesser members of the worm family are used, too, but the nightcrawler is the preeminent fishbait. A few segments of it can be used as a dainty morsel for small pan-fish; a full-bodied, vigorous nightcrawler is substantial enough to draw the attention of a bass or muskie. Despite the recent proliferation of rubber, nylon and plastic lures, neither fish nor fisherman has lost the desire for fishbaits. Last year some 600 million nightcrawlers were sold to North American anglers.

All of these worms were captured in the wild, for despite our long association with them, we have never succeeded in completely domesticating nightcrawlers. Given proper food, bedding, humidity and temperature, they can be kept in good condition for many months in a box, but true nightcrawlers will not regularly reproduce when so contained. Removal from their familiar tunnels seems to diminish their sexual appetites. This is not the case with smaller members of the family. Red worms are much less modest and fastidious and will breed willingly in bins, flats, or almost any other sort of a cage. A distant cousin of the President, Hugh Carter of Plains, Ga., who is one of the nation's largest vermiculturists, or worm farmers, selling some 250 million home-grown red worms a year, set up his first hatchery in a coffin. Because of its fecundity, the red worm is the principal product of an industry that now does about $50 million worth of business a year. Most of the red worms are sold to fishermen, but there is a growing market for them among organic gardeners and pet-food manufacturers. In addition, some attempts are being made to popularize red worms for human consumption. At least one earthworm cookbook has been published, and a major vermiculturist has sponsored a recipe contest in which the winning entry was a formula for making earthworm quiche. Worm farming (or, at least, the would-be worm farmer) has also come to the attention of a variety of get-rich-in-your-basement hustlers. Complaints and legal actions against slippery worm promoters have thus far occurred in eight states. "Millions of dollars are being ripped off from the public across the country because of the flimflam in worm-growing arrangements," remarked Harvey Bell, the Commissioner of the Arkansas Securities Division, who has had trouble with hanky-panky artists of this ilk in his state.

Such shenanigans are of no concern to those who deal with true nightcrawlers, because the nature of the animal restricts them to the role of hunters and trappers. Edwards, in his invaluable Nightcrawler Manual, deals bluntly and instructively with this matter. "I have repeatedly seen articles about red worms (sometimes called hybrids or wigglers) which are accompanied by photographs of some guy holding up a 10-inch night-crawler. These methods [employed in red worm culture] CAN NOT be used successfully with nightcrawlers—a fact which they neglect to mention in the story! IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO RAISE NIGHTCRAWLERS IN YOUR BASEMENT OR GARAGE."

With the help of crews of high school students whom he trains, Edwards himself collects some 500,000 nightcrawlers a year in the vicinity of Maple Park. They are stockpiled in holding pens at his home and are sold directly from there or from vending machines which he has adapted to dispense worms, and which he has placed at a number of fishing sites in northern Illinois.

Edwards, once a junior high science teacher, is now a full-time fishbait dealer. "I got started," he says, "because I was a bass fisherman and I was cheap. I was too cheap to keep paying out 60C for a dozen nightcrawlers, so I started catching my own. Then I got interested in making money and trying to build up a business. I also got interested in the nightcrawlers themselves, watching them, reading about them, trying to figure out their habits. I started out being a fisherman, but now I never seem to have much time to fish. The truth is that on a good night I maybe find it more enjoyable to go out hunting worms and thinking about them than I would if I went fishing."

Having become something of a tycoon and a considerable fishbait naturalist, Edwards spends much of his time selling worms, manufacturing and serving his vermi-vending machines, lecturing to various sporting groups and writing about worms. More and more he depends on his cadre of teen-age associates for the actual collecting, but he remains the grand master. There is probably no other American who has done more to elevate worm hunting to the level of a science, or an art, or a sport. As a great fan of The Nightcrawler Manual, I have come to believe that Edwards is to fishbaits what Izaak Walton or Sparse Grey Hackle is to fish. Therefore, I called him and asked if I could follow along sometime when he went worming. Being very generous of his time when it comes to promoting serious interest in fishbaits, Edwards agreed.

We met one warm summer evening at a caf� some 40 miles west of O'Hare Airport. Instruction began immediately. Edwards allowed that there was no need to rush off because it is foolish to try to stalk the wily Lumbricus until it is fully dark, a condition which at this time of year in the Upper Midwest would not occur until almost ten o'clock. Therefore, we sat around drinking coffee, eating a wretched, prefabricated, frozen Key lime pie and talking about worms. Edwards was apologetic about the weather, saying it was too dry for really good hunting; he was hoping that there would be enough dew so we could get a little action. He wished I had been able to come several days earlier when a midday shower had created ideal conditions in the evening. "I was out with my crew and we picked 20,000 or so," he said. "We were getting some real ropes." (Exceptionally long, fat animals are ropes, or snakes, in the jargon of worm hunters.) "The next morning when I was packaging them, I dug out a double handful of about the best-looking crawlers I have ever seen. They were like prize tomatoes or squash you'd show at a fair. I took them in to show my wife."

"Did she like them?"

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