LAMOINE, Maine — My days as a bloodwormer were numbered even before my feet sank into the muck. And the number was one.
Cameron Brann, who digs for sea worms for a living, had agreed to let me tag along on the mudflats on a hot sunny day to learn more about his trade. To spotlight the vital but often little-noticed seasonal work that revs up the midcoast in summertime, my colleague Alex Acquisto and I are taking turns at trying our hands at mucky, sweaty or simply odd jobs for a day.
Rushing to buy waders for my trip with Brann, I discovered that all the pairs at my local sporting goods store were at least a size too big. I figured I’d be fine so long as I wore an extra pair of thick socks. I was wrong, and I paid for my mistake — more on that later.
Digging for marine worms, especially as a beginner, is exhausting, filthy, repetitive and unreliable work. The two big catches are bloodworms, which resemble earthworms, and sandworms, which have small “legs” running along their sides.
Both can inflict painful bites. Bloodworms lash out with four small black fangs in their proboscis, while sandworms have pincer-like jaws. More importantly, they make very popular, expensive bait for saltwater fishermen across the globe, making the demand for worms much higher in spring and summer months. A bait worm should be at least the size of a cigarette, but some bloodworms can grow to be more than a foot long.
With the right experience and persistence, digging for worms can pay off. Bait shops generally pay 35 cents per bloodworm, though some shops offer as much as 60 cents for large worms to try to attract more business from diggers. A good digger can bring in 500 or more worms per day if conditions are right. If conditions aren’t right, a digger might not find enough worms to pay for the gas to drive to the flat. Sandworms sell for less, with shops buying them for 18 to 25 cents apiece.
“It’s good work with lots of freedom,” Brann said. “But when it’s 90 degrees out and you’re digging like crazy to beat the tide, it’s not so much fun. I’ve seen guys out here puking their guts out. It’s not for the weak of heart.”
I didn’t puke, but that was about my only victory for the day.
Turf by the Surf
After coordinating around the tides, I met Brann at a general store in Lamoine before following his car to a small parking area cut into the woods along Route 184. We slipped into hip waders, grabbed plastic buckets and homemade hoes, and started off. After a short trek through a field and along a narrow path through dense woods, we emerged on the banks of a cove in the tidal Jordan River.
For Brann, digging is a year-round job. The 27-year-old from Whitefield used to work in his family’s auto body shop, but about a year ago he started learning how to dig alongside friends in a family with four decades of experience. In winter, he’ll sometimes stay in a nearby hotel rather than commute from Bangor. In summer, he and fellow diggers will rent a few camping sites in a park.
Warm, sunny days tend to bring out people looking to earn some extra money by mucking around at low tide. So, full-time diggers are secretive about their favorite spots.
“It’s not a little territorial. It’s a lot territorial,” Brann said, holding a cigarette in one hand and a Monster energy drink in the other.
We were just hanging out, waiting for the tide to pull back, exposing more of the mudflat. I went ahead and wrapped duct tape around my oversized boots in the hopes that would make them a little more secure. Then I followed Brann down past the seaweed strewn rocks and into the muck. This is where it went wrong for me.
About five paces onto the mudflat, I realized that loose is the last thing waders should be. Every time I wanted to take a step forward, my boot wanted to stay behind, stuck in the mud. As I waded deeper into the quagmire, I had to start reaching down to grab my waders and pull my boot free. Advance a step, pause, pull, repeat.
Brann told me to watch out for “honey pots,” deep pockets in the mud that can suck a person in up to their knees — or deeper. Diggers typically mark these by jabbing sticks into them to warn diggers who come along after.
By this time, I’d made it about 20 yards into the mud. Brann started digging with his hoe, and I joined him.
There’s a motion, a rhythm, to digging. The hoe sinks into the mud. The digger, with a quick pull at the elbow or wrist, flips the mud over, revealing any worms underneath. Brann said each digger has a technique. As he was telling me that, I was developing my own: Expose a worm, then watch it wiggle for cover — and out of my reach.
Soon, mud caked both my arms up to the elbows, worked its way up my waders and accumulated on my boots, making each Frankenstein-ish step even heavier. Within minutes, I was drenched in sweat and overheated to the point that the mud became soothing.
By comparison, Brann’s pace looked frantic. For every worm I palmed, he seemed to have dropped 10 or 20 into his bucket. As my right arm weakened, I stopped caring about style and started digging with both hands.
My already snail-like pace slackened. I stopped digging altogether after about an hour. Covered in mud hardened by the sun, I slowly headed for the relatively stable footing of a small rock jutting out of the mudflat. Brann kept on digging closer to the water, coming back to shore only when the tide eventually turned.
“It’s the end of the week, and I’m kind of burned out,” Brann said as he washed his worms by transferring them between buckets of seawater. “That wasn’t anything.”
After digging, most harvesters head straight to a bait shop to count their worms and take home a check. Around Brann’s territory, the go-to is ER Baits, a Hancock-based bait shop owned by Ernest “Skeet” Seavey.
Seavey, 64, has been a digger for about 47 years, but started his bait shop about 15 years ago when his digging slowed down. He said the key to making a career as a digger is to treat it like a more regular job: Force yourself to show up every day and work hard during the brief hours the tide is out and mudflats are exposed.
“In the summer, people are begging for [bait worms],” Seavey said.
In 2016, Maine issued 887 marine worm harvesting licenses. Numbers for this year aren’t yet available. The buckets those 887 diggers brought off the mudflats last year contained 292,649 pounds of worms worth about $4.6 million, according to the Department of Marine Resources.
In the late 1960s, bloodworm harvesters brought in around 800,000 pounds per year, but the value of the harvest was less than $2 million and the price per pound was under $2, while today it’s above $15. Diggers say the worms are just harder to find than they used to be. Some scientists have blamed increasing water temperatures. Diggers also have pointed to burgeoning populations of invasive green crabs, which feast on marine worms.
On the flats, diggers tell stories about “old-timers” who used to bring along metal garbage cans because buckets weren’t big enough. One wormer recounted the local legend that the late Charlie Lounder supposedly once dug up 5,600 worms in a day.
At ER Baits, Brann counted out 250 worms, enough to earn him a check for $87.50. It was a smaller take than he’d hoped for, but I had no doubt slowed him down. He always aims for at least 500 worms, considered a very good day by most diggers.
My bucket was an embarrassment: Seven bloodworms and 14 sandworms. I couldn’t legally sell them without a license. State law would have allowed me to keep up to 50 worms for my own purposes. I wanted no part of them, though.
I walked away thinking that if only I had had the right boots and the right technique, the worms and the muck might not have defeated me. I tip my filthy, sweat-soaked cap to the diggers who manage to scratch out a good living from Maine’s muddy shores.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.