SOUTH ADDISON, Maine — Dickie Sprague and Anna German, who have been partners for 15 years, pull on their rubber waders, don mud-splattered sweatshirts, grab their rakes and buckets, and walk out to the flats.
It’s a pretty place, off Bickford Point with a view of Wohoa Bay. At 9:30 on a recent morning, they’ve timed it just right. As the tide recedes, they work the wet mud for bloodworms, a light-colored worm with a nasty bite that can cause an allergic reaction in some people.
The creamy pink worms have tiny, fleshy, almost leglike projections called parapodia, which function during movement and respiration, said Stetson Everett of Eastern Sea Worm Co. in Hancock. Everett has been buying bloodworms since 1972.
In 2009, 902 licensed harvesters and 38 worm dealers were active in Maine, according to Peter Thayer, a scientist with the Maine Department of Marine Resources. More than 476,300 pounds of worms were dug, with a value of $5,140,122.
“This is a fishery that is very under the radar,” Thayer said Thursday. “By combining the landings of both bloodworms and sandworms, it is the fifth-most important fishery in the state.”
Sprague is proud that he works for a bait dealer who will take all small worms and set them aside for reseeding. “He’ll hand us a bucket and we put them back to sustain the harvest,” Sprague said.
“Almost all the dealers do that,” Everett said. “We have to restock or eventually we’d be out of business.”
Worms that arrive at Eastern Sea Worm Co. in the morning are shipped out by afternoon, Everett said. They are packed in 125- or 250-pound blocks of seaweed and sent by refrigerated truck to Boston, where wholesalers then market them to East Coast retail bait dealers or ship them to the Mediterranean.
“It’s all for the sports fishing industry,” he said.
Everett said most dealers will reseed the flats with small worms, but the worms themselves are quite prolific. Every two worms will lay 40 million eggs, he said.
Harvesters bring in an average of 800 to 1,500 worms per tide.
A way of life
Digging worms is a generational way of life Down East.
Sprague has been digging worms for 37 years, since he was 5 years old. German has been at it for 10 years. A cousin, Clifford Seavey, 37, who often comes digging with them, has been harvesting worms since he was 12.
They dig in the sunshine, in the rain, in the snow and ice.
“My grandfather dug worms all his life. Bare-handed,” Sprague said.
“The only time we don’t go out is when the seawater freezes in the bucket,” he said. “It is hard work. In the summer, you sweat and burn. In the winter, you sweat then freeze.”
German said there are days when diggers “hit a spot” and harvest hundreds. “Yesterday, we worked two hours and got 1,065 worms,” she said.
At 24 cents apiece, that brought in about $235.
Worms can sense a change in the barometric pressure, Sprague said. “If it rains, it sometimes brings them right up to the surface. Wind, sun, everything affects the harvest.”
“But there are other days when we find nothing. We get skunked,” German said. “Those are hard days.”
After walking onto the flats, the diggers pick a spot in the mud, spread their legs a bit and begin turning the mud with a tined rake. Thwack. Thwack. They move forward, adding a sucking sound as they pull their boots from the mud. Gulls swirl, looking for a free meal.
The sun hides behind the clouds and a cool breeze springs up. “Some days it is so cold that your fingers swell up and you have to peel off your gloves,” Sprague said. He said a few years ago there was such a cold stretch that the mud froze and all the worms were killed.
“Then there are the summer days when you move a bit of seaweed and the mosquitoes rise up in a cloud and you breathe them right in,” he said.
It’s hard on the back, Sprague said. “When I come off the flats, there are days when I can barely move. Winter is the hardest. Sometimes I worry that we’re not going to make it [financially.]”
What is the lure of such hard, physical work?
“I love it,” German said. “I’m outside. I have no boss. It’s freedom.”
“I like the quiet,” Sprague said. “I can go when I want. Sometimes we’ll go all week, up to six hours a day. And some days it is so pretty, with the sunrise or the sunset.”
The couple have seen eagles, ospreys and a wide variety of sea life. German once was nearly run down by a small herd of deer that ran across the flats. They’ve also found a few treasures while digging: Indian artifacts, arrowheads, old bottles.
Worming is a very competitive business, the diggers say. Sprague said it’s not unusual for diggers to travel three hours to a favorite digging spot.
“Other diggers park on a corner and watch for your car to go by and follow you,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll have 30 or 40 diggers show up in the same area and it looks like the flats have been rototilled.”
When diggers sell their worms to the bait dealer, they must record their names, the number of worms and where they were dug.
“If we have a real good harvest, other diggers will see that and follow you there,” Sprague said.But on the flats, diggers can work hours standing just 30 feet apart and never speak to each other.
“I like it this way,” said Sprague. “Even if it is hard, hard work, it’s quiet. Peaceful.”