The Worms That Have Fishermen Hooked

Posted: July 24, 1995

When the tide is low, they are yanked from their homes in the mudflats of Maine, the only state where they are extensively harvested. Then human hands pack the angry creatures in boxes of moist seaweed.

They are shipped to bait shops - in the Philadelphia region, at the Jersey Shore, up and down Chesapeake Bay. Some will travel as far as the Pacific Coast, Europe or Japan.

A tempting treat to everything from striped bass to kingfish, they are one of the most popular fishing tools. And that's one reason that, at $32 a pound, they are the most expensive commercially harvested marine organism, more costly than lobster or sea urchin roe.

They are bloodworms - menacing, voracious, blood-red sea dwellers who'd be more than happy to eat you, too, if only they were big enough.

Don Brown, manager of Ray Scott's Dock in Margate, N.J., calls them "rich man's bait."

That's especially true this season - not a banner one for the bloodworm - when fishermen can expect to pay anywhere from $4.50 to more than $5 per dozen, an average increase of about 30 cents.

Two months ago, the slimy carnivores were stuck in the mud, the result of a weeklong strike by worm diggers in eastern Maine. Many tackle shops and wholesalers couldn't even get them. And, after the labor dispute, prices went up.

Now an extremely hot spell has taken its toll on the bloodworms, which prefer their climate cool and wet and perish easily out of their habitat. Some anglers complain that they are purchasing worms that are half-dead.

But even with all those hassles, it's doubtful people will stop buying them anytime soon.

"From the amount we sell when we have them, they seem to be very good," said Bill O'Rourke, of Oscar Jenkins Co., in Mullica Hill. "We get three or four flats (about 1,000 worms) in at a time, and they go pretty fast."

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Around 1913, diggers began harvesting the bloodworm in the New York City and Long Island area, said Bruce Joule, a scientist with Maine's Department of Marine Resources.

But the twin problems of pollution and overharvesting depleted the stocks. Today bloodworms - which get their name from the red hemoglobin-like fluid that fills their cream-colored skin - can be found on the East Coast as far south as the Carolinas, Joule said, but not in large numbers or in accessible areas.

They've always been plentiful in Maine, however, where the worm industry started to flourish in the early 1940s.

One reason is that large tidal swings there expose vast sections of the muddy estuaries that are home to the worm. And the environment where they thrive is never fully exposed, protecting worms from human ways while giving the species a chance to reproduce - which they do during the last nine months of a four- or five-year lifespan.

Some 29 million bloodworms were harvested in Maine in 1982, worth about $2 million at that time. The number declined to a low of 17 million in 1988, but has remained in the 20 million range during the last four or five years.

Although they also are commercially harvested on a smaller scale in some Canadian provinces, most bloodworms come from Maine's 19 dealers. That explains why they virtually disappeared during the strike, right before the high demand of Memorial Day weekend.

"We couldn't get them from nowhere," said O'Rourke, of Oscar Jenkins Co. ''Nobody could."

To settle the dispute with his 40 diggers, William Wright, a worm dealer in Addison, Maine, gave his strikers a 2-cent-per-worm raise, to 12 cents per worm. In some parts of the state, diggers earn as much as 15 cents per worm, said Wright, who has been in the worm business since 1962.

The increase is passed from dealers such as Wright to wholesalers, who pass it on to tackle shop owners, who pass it on to fishermen.

Even after the strike, dealers faced another problem: Mother Nature. If refrigerated, the worms can live for about a week and a half after harvesting. But in this summer's heat they may be dead after two or three days in bait shop coolers.

"They stress very easily in the heat," Joule said. "That's one of the problems with shipping. Those things sit on a tarmac for 10 minutes and they'll cook right there."

Bloodworms are almost always in the same frame of mind. Ready to attack.

"They'll bite anything that's in their way," said Wright, who ships worms across the country and to Europe.

Humans can be targeted for an attack, which begins with a flaring of the worm's four jaw parts from its cone-shaped head. While attempting to pump you full of venom from its poison glands, the worm looks like it's trying to turn its head inside out.

For humans, a bite from a bloodworm can be rather unpleasant, sort of like a bee sting. If a victim is allergic, there can be swelling as well, Joule said.

"One time I was bitten in the soft part of the hand, between the fingers, and it felt like a wasp sting," Joule said.

The bloodworm can grow to six or eight inches in length and end up as fat as the human digits that pluck them from the sandwich bags and plastic-foam containers in which they are sold.

Except perhaps for species that reside in the deep sea, Joule can't think of any other worm that's as aggressive as the bloodworm. And certainly not anything that humans would handle regularly.

"As far as having the venomous jawed mouthpiece, I'd say that sets them apart," Joule said. "Sandworms have two jaw sections, but they are more suited to grasping and tearing. There's no poison glands associated with them. You can get bit by a sandworm, but it might feel like a little crab."

Contrary to a common misconception, the bloodworm does not suck blood.

"They are not little Draculas of the mudflats," Joule said. "They are not after your blood."

Instead, the carnivores eat other worms and small marine organisms.

In their natural habitat, bloodworms are often the prey of fish and birds. And each other.

"They are cannibalistic," Wright said. "They'll bite each other and poke holes in each other."

Steve Michalak of Wenonah seems unworried as he grabs a four-inch worm from a sandwich bag packed with seaweed. Then he rips the worm in half. Not a sight for the squeamish, the deep-red worm-part writhes as Michalak slips it onto a small hook, stuffing the other half back in the bag. Spots of blood stain the brick-and-concrete platform in Gloucester City's Proprietors Park, a popular fishing spot on the Delaware River.

"Fresh blood," Michalak says, before snapping his wrist for a 50-foot cast.

The reasons for the bloodworms' popularity vary. Some say it's the scent of the blood that makes for good bait. Others say it's their movement and presentation on the hook.

For anglers, Brown said, bloodworms are extremely versatile and will catch many species from spring to late fall. They are popular on the Delaware River

because of the increasing striper population there.

In his search for the trophy striper, which he plans to have mounted, Michalak has used bloodworms for four to five years. Using bloodies only on this day, he has caught seven striped bass, although all of them are far below the 28-inch river limit that determines whether the fish is a "keeper."

Michalak pays up to $5 a dozen for the bait.

"I'm after the big bass," he says. "It's worth the bucks."

At a Cumberland Farms store in Gloucester City, a bait fridge lists the price of a dozen bloodworms at $4.99, more than twice as much as night crawlers, meal worms, preserved grass shrimp, bait shrimp, squid, clam snouts and herring.

Victor Bond, 48, of Philadelphia, no longer uses bloodworms while fishing the Delaware. He switched to night crawlers and shrimp because they are cheaper and because the big stripers have now gone down river. Bond said the worms not only cost more, "They've been half-dead."

Still, the fisherman in Bond couldn't deny it.

"They are excellent bait," he said.

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