The Little-Known Art of Worm Grunting

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We held an eighth-grade graduation party for our nephew, Connor, last weekend. He is about to enter high school, which boggles my mind. It seems it was just yesterday that I met him at an Easter egg hunt when he was 3. Connor is now slightly taller than me, which isn’t saying much, but there is still considerable growth potential. He and his dad, Jim, are two of my favorite people.

Connor and his buddy, Jacob, took a break from swimming in the pool, at which point Jim announced he would show all of us the age-old tradition of worm grunting. We headed outside to what most folks might call a mulch pile. It is, in reality, a long-neglected hump of pine straw, tree limbs and soil under a canopy of trees in a little-used part of our backyard. It has been on the round-to-it list for years. As in, “I’ll get around to it” one of these days.

Jim pulled out his knife, one of those that requires a holster on a belt because it won’t fit in a pocket. He began whittling square notches into a 2-foot long stick. We watched and swatted away mosquitoes. When he finished, he squatted down over the pile and began rubbing a smooth stick against the notched one. It made a rackety, clackety sound.

“There’s one,” Jim said. A worm briefly peeped out from the soil, then began wriggling away. Soon there was another, then another. Every time he rubbed the sticks together, worms would pop out. Naturally, a worm chunking exchange ensued. The boys picked up and tossed worms at each other. Similar to snake charming, worm grunting really is a thing. The boys – heck, all of us – were fascinated. I decided to further explore worm grunting, also referred to as worm charming, and worm fiddling.

For generations, according to an article in Modern Farmer, worm grunting has been used to gather earthworms for fishing bait in the South, though the practice has grown increasingly obscure. One Florida Panhandle couple, the Revells, can gather up to 4,000 worms in a morning. According to the article, they sell the earthworms in buckets of 50 for $35. That totals $2,800 for 4,000 worms, which is not bad pay for rubbing two sticks together and making noise. (The pros use a strip of metal to make more vibration.)

A Vanderbilt researcher in 2008 accompanied the Revells on a grunting expedition, as the article put it. He measured the vibrations and concluded the most-effective worm grunters most closely mimicked the vibrations made by moles, who consider earthworms the rodent equivalent of a filet mignon. So the earthworms are fleeing what they perceive as moles, which are blind. The earthworms end up serving as bait.

This gave me an idea. We have been bothered by moles for years. Our two cats regularly leave mole carcasses at the back door as tribute. Even with their feline dedication, Tater and Tot are hardly making a dent in the population. If our whole family got in the backyard at once with worm grunters and collected all the fleeing worms, maybe the moles would leave and seek meals elsewhere. It is worth a shot.

The little town of Sopchoppy on the Florida Panhandle holds a Worm Gruntin’ Festival every year, and names a festival king and queen. Other festivals are held in Alabama and several towns in England. A 10-year-old girl in England holds the Guiness World Record for charming 567 worms in a half-hour out of the ground. The article says she used pitchfork tines to create the vibration. I don’t know about that technique. It seems a bit too high-tech for such a hallowed tradition.

After a while, we escaped back into the air-conditioning, leaving the worms at the mercy of the moles.

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