May 19, 2022
There was a time in the South when "grunting" earthworms was more of a serious undertaking and less a curiosity around which to build tourist festivals.
Not counting the folks who grunted—or "fiddled," or "charmed"—up a few worms at a time to go fishing, hundreds of others supplemented their household incomes by supplying worms to fish camps and bait shops.
Arguably the best worm grunters nowadays work their magic in the Florida Panhandle. North Florida isn't the only place worm fiddlers can practice their quaint craft, however.
From the Carolinas to Texas, any place with the right recipe of porous dirt, humus and moisture will work, be it a piney woods, along a river swamp or in an open cattle pasture. There are a lot of different types of earthworms, but the ones that Southern fiddlers favor are the Diplocardia mississippiensis. These 6- to 10-inch worms are succulent delicacies to the catfish, shellcrackers and bluegills that inhabit the South's rivers and lakes.
The general approach to fiddling is to drive a wooden stake, called a stob, into the ground several inches until it's firmly embedded, then saw back and forth across the top of it rhythmically with a leaf spring or other 2- to 3-foot length of flat metal. Within a couple of minutes, earthworms should appear at the surface; otherwise, the fiddler moves on to the next likely spot.
It’s usually a two-person job, with one participant fiddling and the other gathering the worms that pop up. Nobody knows with certainty why fiddling works. Maybe earthworms are reacting to the vibrations because they perceive they're made by a predator; maybe it's just because the vibrations drive them nuts and the only quick way out for them is up.
Most of the best grunters are particular about the type and thickness of the stob they use. The stob might be made of oak, hornbeam or some other readily available local hardwood. Heart of pine wood is another choice.
Likewise, the "rooping iron," as the metal strip is called, must be of a certain thickness. Actually, there's no perfect setup as long as the worms get annoyed. Ask 10 grunters what they use, and you might get 10 different answers.
Nowadays, Gary Revell, 69, of Sopchoppy, Fla., is the guy regional news media usually write about or video when it’s time to do their annual pieces on the Sopchoppy Worm Gruntin’ Festival in early April (wormgruntinfestival.com). Revell employs a custom-made rooping iron and wooden stake in his grunting enterprises.
"I don’t know where the practice originated," says the worm-grunting maestro. "Back when I was a kid it was just something the locals did to get fish bait. It wasn't just around here, either, but also in parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia, or wherever there are a lot of earthworms. Grunting was and still is the quickest way to get worms. When we were young, my wife Audrey and I could get thousands and thousands in a morning. There's not as many worms as there used to be, but still enough to make it worth your time and effort if you know what you're doing."
Mastering the fiddling technique isn't nearly as difficult as finding earthworm hangouts in the first place. The best time to fiddle is spring and early summer, which is when worms are most active, and which also coincides with peak fishing season. Here are some of Revell's secrets.
- 1. Location, Location, Location: "Consider the terrain and how much rain the area generally gets or how dry the ground is. Earthworms will move up or down or sideways according to the weather and how much rain there’s been. In general, grunting produces best when the soil is moderately moist from recent rain or a heavy dew."
- 2. Look for Clues: "When the ground is all worked up by hogs or armadillos, that's an indicator that worms are around. The tunnel mounds of moles hunting worms will show up, too."
- 3. Be Patient: "Earthworms aren’t going to come popping out of the ground as soon as the gruntin’ starts. Give them a few minutes to show up before pulling out the stake and trying somewhere else. Depending on how long you plan to stay out and how much work you want to put into it, it's best to have somebody with you who can spot the worms when they come up. When worms get scarce, move on."
- 4. Fiddling Strategies: "I prefer an oak stob of about 2 1/2 feet long. I drive it into the ground about a third of the way with a heavy hammer. As I grunt and put some weight on it, the stob will work itself down a bit more. Within two or three minutes I'll can tell what's there. The iron is sawed across the stob five or six times with a relatively slow, steady rhythm, then paused. Then the process is repeated. After that, I decide whether to move a lot or a little, but you have to give it some time before relocating."
This article is featured in the May 2022 South edition of Game & Fish Magazine. Learn how to subscribe.