The Art of Fishing: Digging bloodworms in Downeast Maine

First published in the MLA Newsletter, October, 2012.

Jon Renwick, 54, is a sturdy man. His blue eyes gleam even brighter in the late afternoon sun as he ushers his five big dogs away from a visitor to his Birch Harbor home. “We had this one bred,” he says, gesturing to an enormous dog lounging on a picnic table. “There were eleven pups.”

Renwick’s house overlooks Schoodic harbor. The rooms are ample and warm. They are the product of many years of hard labor on the part of Renwick, who began lobstering when he was eight years old. “My grandfather [Orton Myrick] tied me to the bait tub so I wouldn’t go overboard,” he recalled with a smile. “I baited bait bags for him for a dollar a day. He only fished one hundred traps. He always headed back in for noon dinner and then went fishing around here in the afternoons.”

Photo by Melissa Waterman.

When Renwick turned twelve, his father, James Renwick, decided it was time for him to make some real money. He took his son over to Dick Orcutt in nearby Franklin to learn the art of digging blood worms. “I had my peanut butter bucket and a hoe. I dug 92 worms that first day,” Renwick said, smiling at the memory. Each blood worm brought Renwick four cents. He quickly took to the trade under Orcutt’s tutelage. “He made worm hoes from old baby carriages. He would cut the length he wanted from the springs and attach it to the tines. Those were good hoes,” Renwick continued.

Digging blood worms is a longstanding business in Downeast Maine. Bloodworms and their cousin, sandworms, are found in the silty clay or mud of Maine’s extensive mud flats. The worms are so named because their blood shows through their pale skin giving them a faint pink color. Bloodworms have four “teeth” connected to glands. When they encounter prey, they chomp down on the creature and inject it with a toxin. That bite is also painful to humans.

The worms are highly sought after as bait for recreational fishermen. They are also dried, ground up and used as food for aquarium fish. “Jackson Lab [on Mt. Desert Island] and other places use them because their blood is like human blood. Used to be they were sold as feed to some of the shrimp farms down in South America. Now they are shipped to the Mediterranean for bait there. The guy I sell to sells about 90% of the worms to the Mediterranean,” Renwick said. Harvesting the mud-loving creatures brings good money to Downeast Maine. The Department of Marine Resources catch statistics show that 525,859 pounds of bloodworms valued at $5,847,315 were landed in 2011.

To catch a bloodworm one must buy a state license and get a good rake. A digger will dig a chosen flat as the tide recedes, sinking the rake into the mud, pulling back the sediment and searching for the worms. “You work on the tide,” Renwick explained. He had been out earlier this day and dug 895 worms in a four-hour stretch at 25 cents per worm. “The only way to be a good worm digger is to hurt yourself. You have to exert yourself to the max,” he declared.

He relishes the fact that he can, and has, worked the mudflats throughout the Maine coast. Unlike clam diggers, who may dig only in the flats of their community unless they obtain a rare, out-of-town license in another municipality, worm diggers can dig any flat at any time. “I’ve travelled the coast looking for good worm flats,” Renwick said. “The clam diggers don’t like worm diggers because they think we turn over the mud too often. They want to shut out the worm guys but they can’t.”

Bloodworms come in waves at some times and disappear at others, Renwick said. The worms will move vertically up and down in the mud to regulate their body temperature; in very cold seasons they may be well below the ten inch depth of the rake. “You will find them in bands stretched through a flat,” he explained. “This older guy, Charlie Lounder in Ellsworth, he was the champion worm digger. His legs were as big as my chest. He would always say, ‘Know your mud.’ And it’s true, mud is different in different places. You use a different rake.”

Once harvested, bloodworms are kept in cold saltwater and taken to a dealer where they are counted for payment. The digger must sign his or her name to indicate the number of worms brought in and where they were dug. “No one tells the truth there,” Renwick said, shaking his head. “Not one person says where they actually dug the worms because if you do, then you will be mobbed. It’s foolish.”

When he was younger, Renwick and his father set their lobster traps in early spring, then brought the traps out until the fall. They would dig bloodworms throughout the summer until the end of September or early October, and then return to lobstering. But that pattern has changed, according to Renwick. “It used to be the best time to lobster was November. Now there’s nothing. You could starve to death inside,” he said.

For years Renwick supported himself, his wife and two sons through digging bloodworms throughout the year with some lobstering in the spring and fall. “I used to say I was a worm digger who went lobster fishing. Now I’m a lobsterman that goes worming,” he explained. “The only thing you have a right to do is lobster and dig worms.” He believes that over time there has been a concerted effort to consolidate the right to fish in favor of large corporations rather than small-scale fishermen. “They have the idea that it’s better to manage people, not the resource,” Renwick said. “But the free market always works better to streamline the situation than government regulations.” He contends that the lobster zone council system instituted in 1996 had the unfortunate result of intensifying fishing effort while making it nearly impossible for young people to get into the fishery.

After a long interview, Renwick rises lightly from his chair like a young man. He puts away the various worm rakes he brought out to show and leads his visitor to the door. “Talk about a nice life. I am outside at all hours of the day and night and it’s beautiful. Plus I’m in phenomenal physical shape!” he said with a smile.