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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"She said to get those worms out of the kitchen."

Edwards said that we would be hunting on a golf course and was a bit defensive about selecting such a site. This was surprising, because in the days of my youth golf courses were regarded as absolutely the best places to look for worms. Edwards politely explained that my lore, like that of many others of my generation, was obsolete. Because of continued applications of herbicides and pesticides, modern golf courses are often worm-poor. "Around here we get our best picking in vacant lots, on school grounds, and around ball fields where they don't use many chemicals." (Ecological aside: investigators have found that earthworms can tolerate relatively large amounts of many commercial pesticides, residues of which are often found in their tissues. Unless the doses are massive, the worms continue to function without immediately apparent ill effects. However, because the toxins tend to be concentrated in their bodies, other less resistant creatures, such as birds, may suffer more from eating contaminated worms than they would from direct exposure to the poison.)

Despite the drawbacks, Edwards had chosen a golf course for demonstration purposes, thinking it would be a more scenic and convenient place to take a rookie than some of the scruffier but more productive areas where he and his commercial crews hunt. "This course isn't the best place, but it's not bad," he said. "I guess it's a little run-down for golf. They don't seem to spend a lot of money taking care of it, but that's good for worms. Also, it's a lot easier than crawling around in broken glass, which we have in some of our spots."

We drove to the golf course, and there Edwards began to get into and explain his worm-hunting costume, an outfit he has created as a result of his experiences in the field. The basic uniform is coveralls and kneepads, worn for protection and convenience while crawling around on the ground in the dark. On a belt around his waist he hangs half a dozen plastic boxes—gallon milk containers with the tops cut off. Each of these will hold 500 or so worms. In a similar container he carries a few pounds of sawdust, which serves the same purpose resin does for a baseball batter. "Always keep sawdust on your hands," Edwards said. "If you don't, they [the fishbaits] are going to slip out or you will squeeze too hard trying to get a grip. You get dead worms." (Oak and redwood sawdust should not be used for this purpose, their acid content being harmful to worms.)

Edwards has some strong opinions about footwear, and in The Nightcrawler Manual warns: "NEVER WEAR heavy boots. Any heavy, clunky, hard-soled footwear makes too much 'noise' as you walk in the grass." Tennis shoes are good enough for casual amateur hunters, but he himself is more professionally shod. What he pulls on is a disreputable-looking pair of old, cracked dress shoes from which the heels and stiff outer soles have been removed. "The inner sole that remains," he writes of his innovation, "will be soft and thin. As you walk slowly and silently at night you will actually 'feel' worms popping under your feet when you step on them."

A critical piece of equipment is the worm light, a battery-powered lamp worn on a headband as miners or cavers do and equipped with a rheostat switch so that the degree of illumination can be adjusted. Bright, clear light alarms crawlers and drives them underground, so Edwards covers his headlamps with white plastic to soften and diffuse the beam. ("Note—I didn't say clear plastic, green plastic, yellow plastic—I said, and meant, white plastic")

Some authorities have recommended using red headlights, but Edwards believes this is Unnecessary and Unwise. "The worms don't care whether the light is red or white so long as it is soft. The difference is that it is harder for you to see them using a red light. You can't pick what you can't see. The trick is to keep adjusting your white light so you get enough for good picking but not enough to scare them. It's a little different every night, depending on the sky light."

So prepared, we set off across the 9th fairway, Edwards pussyfooting along in the lead, waiting for worms to pop under his stripped-down shoes. After a few moments he turned down his light and called back that he had found a hot spot. Considering how surreptitiously we had been advancing, he spoke very loudly and clearly. "They don't hear like we do," he explained. "You can talk and even yell and they don't pay any attention. If I'm alone and there's a ball game or something I want to hear, I carry a transistor radio. The thing they are sensitive to is vibrations. Very sensitive. If you walk heavy-footed, you squish the ground. That scares them and they go down."

Trying to squish as little as possible, I joined Edwards at the hot spot. A number of nightcrawlers were visible, eating, depositing castings, loving or perhaps just taking the night air. We got down on all fours and had at them. For those who may have scooped up a few sick, sluggish animals stranded on a sidewalk, or plucked an occasional one from a lawn, it might seem that hunting nightcrawlers at professional speed would be simple, dull stoop labor on the order of harvesting stringbeans. IT IS NOT. They are slippery, very alert and agile creatures. One false move or vibration and they disappear into their tunnels with the speed of a coiling watch spring. During the course of two or three minutes, Edwards, alternating hands in an easy plucking motion, caught 50 or so worms. In the same period, favoring a lunge-lurch style, I got eight. Two of them were probably squeezed too hard and another had been indisputably Severed in the neighborhood of segment 54. Edwards was kind enough to say that I was not as awkward as some beginners he had seen, and then proceeded to offer advice aimed at improving my technique.

Long experience has enabled Edwards to break down the act of catching a night-crawler into its step-by-step components, and for instructional purposes he explains them as Ted Williams might describe what to do about the low, inside curveball. As in so many other physical activities, the initial stance is of cardinal importance, and Edwards has developed and recommends something he calls the Elephant Walk. To demonstrate, he assumed a crouching position somewhat like that of a down lineman. Spreading his knees apart as far as possible, he crawled ahead-while weaving his head and shoulders from side to side in a manner suggestive of a trunkless elephant. As he proceeded, he gleaned worms on both sides, picking with one hand and balancing with the other, then reversing the hand positions. Edwards claims that the Elephant Walk enables the hunter to spread his weight so as to reduce the vibrations he makes and allows him to reach the maximum number of worms with a minimum amount of movement.

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