Gruntin' and gathering
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
SOPCHOPPY -- One foggy spring morning deep in the Apalachicola National Forest, William Johnson took a friend to watch while he "grunted" for worms.
He pierced the loose soil with his "stob," a well-worn stake about three-foot-long, carved from the wood of a black gum tree. His other tool was an "iron," a flat piece of metal, twice as wide as a ruler and 2 feet long.
Johnson, 41, used the iron to bang in the stob: "Tink, tink, tink." He rubbed the iron against the stob: "grunt, grunt, grunt."
Up came hundreds of fat, footlong earthworms, powerless against this man-made vibration. Johnson's friend bolted from the forest.
"It's an art," Johnson said Saturday as he took part in the second annual Worm Gruntin' Festival in this Wakulla County hamlet south of Tallahassee.
He was one of hundreds who attended the event celebrating "worm grunting," which has sustained generations of families in this part of the Florida Panhandle. About 20 young contestants and their adult helpers gathered in a vacant downtown field with stobs and stakes provided by festival organizers. Some brought their own tools.
After 30 minutes of work in the shadow of a weathered train depot, the prize -- $50 cash and a set of worm gruntin' tools -- was collected by 7-year-old Hannah Oxendine of Tallahassee. Her plastic cup of worms, about one-quarter full, weighed the most. The festival ended last night with a country music and blue grass concert on the loading dock of the town hardware store, where dancers rested on bails of hay.
After only two years, the event has come to be the social event of the year in Sopchoppy, a town of 411 people on the slow-moving Sopchoppy River.
Here where the water is red, silty and dark, like unstirred cranberry tea, the natives do not worship just any earthworm. The region is blessed by a worm with a Latin name, Diplocardia mississippiensis. It is not to be confused with the skinnier northern red worms whose ancestors came over with the settlers at Jamestown. The land now known as the Apalachicola National Forest was never settled because of its sandy soil; thus its native worm was never weakened by the European gene pool.
The Diplocardia mississippiensis has 12 hearts, each the size of pinhead. Those who use it for fishing admire the thick, long body and the robust constitution that will withstand the trauma of being hooked. This worm does not go limp in the water or easily wilt in the sun.
More than just bait, the Panhandle earthworm also improves the soil by loosening it and adding nutrients such as calcium from its calciferous gland. The small castings it leaves as waste are eaten by insects, which are eaten by birds such as the threatened red-cockaded woodpecker.
The calcium adds thickness to the woodpecker's eggs and strengthens the bones of its chicks.
There are easier ways to draw earthworms out of the ground, including electrical shock or vibrations from heavy construction equipment. But time has proven that the gentler practice of grunting is less traumatic for the worms, which means they last longer.
No one knows why the vibration draws them out of the ground.
"They can't stand it," said Johnson, the Sopchoppy grunter.
And if you rest in a quiet forest after a few minutes of grunting, he said, you can hear the sound of worms rustling up through soil and slithering across the surface.
In the spring, when fishing season is in high gear, a can of 500 of these earthworms will fetch as much as $55 at the bait store, up from $12 in the offseason. That can mean $20 to $30 per bucket for the grunter. A morning's worth of grunting can bring in $100 to $200.
Dealers distribute the product to bait shops across the South.
"When the price (for a can) gets up to $35 or $40, people start to take leave from their jobs," said Andy Colaninno, district ranger for the Apalachicola National Forest. "School bus drivers, sales clerks, insurance salesmen -- everybody's out."
Many was the month that the rent or the grocery bill was paid with worm grunting money, said Robert Sanders, a 28-year-old Sopchoppy native who was one of 10 children. His grandfather paid off a house and raised 10 children, largely from worm money.
"My dad oystered in the morning," Sanders said. "He'd come home about 3 o'clock, get us young'uns, and we'd go out in the afternoon and get bait, and then on the weekends we would bait."
The kids at school would make fun of worm grunters, but the money was good, said Sanders, an electrician. "Before I got a regular job, I was just young and I would make $200 or $300 a morning and be broke by the next day and be back out there. Easy come, easy go."
He and other longtime grunters agreed that the end of worm grunting's heyday came when CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt, known for his serene portraits of nature, discovered Sopchoppy. In 1972, he broadcast a report about a local bait dealer.
The dealer claimed he made hundreds of thousands of dollars grunting worms, which attracted the attention of the IRS and the U.S. Forest Service. Almost overnight, the worm grunting industry was regulated.
Today, grunters must pay $15 per month to ply their trade in the forest. About 500 permits were issued last year.
"Charles Kuralt came down here and destroyed it," said Johnson, the longtime grunter from Sopchoppy. "He got good publicity, but he made it bad for the people that lived here. It ain't like it used to be."
Drought conditions in recent years also have taken their toll, pushing worms deeper into the ground, reducing their numbers or forcing them to migrate elsewhere. The popularity of artificial bait also has had an impact.
Sanders, Johnson and others agree that the industry slowed considerably in the mid- to late-1980s. But many locals still turn to worm grunting when finances get low.
"It brings a little extra money in the house," Sanders said. "One week you may not have enough money to do what you want to do."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire