The first time I saw someone “fiddle” up worms, it was a magical experience. My uncle and I were going fishing and needed some bait.
“No need buying what we can get for free,” he said. “I’ll show you an easy way to get all the worms we need.”
In damp soil, my uncle drove a 3-foot dogwood stake into the ground. He then took a hand saw and began dragging it back and forth across the top of the stake. The stake began vibrating, and within seconds, dozens of worms started popping out of the soil all around us. I was astounded. A magician sawing a woman in half couldn’t have fascinated me more.
“My father taught me how to fiddle for worms,” my uncle said. “And his father taught him. You can show your kids someday.”
In those days, few folks bought bait at bait shops. Most anglers collected their own bait, instead.
Night crawlers, red wigglers and other types of worms were among the most popular baits because they catch everything from pan-sized bluegills to huge catfish. They also are easy to obtain, especially when you try fiddling, an old-fashioned technique passed down from one generation of fishermen to another for more than a century.
Different tools are used in different regions to coax the worms from their burrows, and the practice is known by many names. In North Carolina, folks “call” worms by twanging the handle of a pitchfork after its prong end is driven into the soil. In Florida and Alabama, “baiters” rub an ax or piece of steel across the top of a stake, creating a grunting or snoring sound. So there, the practice is known as grunting, snoring or rubbing. Names with unknown origins include doodling and rooping.
In most places, this unusual bait-collection method has become as obscure as making lye soap and plowing with a mule. But my late father-in-law Hansel Hill of Alpine, Arkansas, used this method of bait gathering right up until his passing three years ago.
“Fiddling for worms is almost a lost art,” he told me. “But a few of us remember how it’s done. We learned to catch worms this way because we didn’t have money to spend on store-bought bait. And even though there aren’t many people who do it, it’s still a great way to catch lots of fishing bait in a short period of time.
“They call it fiddling, because a hand saw is run across the top of a pole like running a bow across a fiddle,” he continued. “To do it, all you need is a hand saw and a pole or stick about 36 to 48 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. Any type of wood will work.”
According to Hansel, the best time for fiddling is spring, especially after a rain shower. The moist ground draws night crawlers and other worms closer to the surface.
“Look for a moist, shady spot with fallen leaves covering the ground,” he said. “I watch for mounds similar to ant hills. This is where worms have worked their way up through the soil.”
To begin fiddling, Hansel would drive the pole 6 to 8 inches into the ground. “The pole should be steady when you saw across it,” he said. “When the pole is set, saw back and forth across the top of it with the saw’s teeth, just deep enough to make the stick vibrate. Keep the sawing action as smooth as possible, and as the pole starts vibrating, worms will start popping up out of the ground around the pole. In a good spot, you may collect as many as 10 to 20 worms.”
Hansel also used a somewhat simpler way of fiddling. After finding a dogwood or elm sapling growing in a spot where worms are likely to be, he would saw it off 3 feet above the ground. The cut sapling served as the fiddling stake.
“When you do it this way,” he said, “you can go back to the same spot for many seasons and gather worms. All you need is your saw and a container for the worms.”
A more modern method Hansel used to collect worms, and one that also works great, is what he dubbed “The McCullough Technique.” This one employs a chain saw, with the cutting chain either removed or disengaged. Hill started up the saw, and then either placed it on top of a fiddling stake, or pushed the rounded tip into the ground. He then waited for the worms to surface as they are coaxed from the soil by the chain saw’s vibrations.
Some folks say worms leave the ground to escape the maddening vibrations created by the fiddler, but Hansel believed otherwise.
“The reason worms come to the top is simple,” he said. “The vibration caused by the saw is similar to a mole digging in the ground looking for dinner. The worms come to the top to escape.”
British naturalist Charles Darwin spent a great deal of time studying earthworms and published his findings in his final book in 1881. In it, he discussed this mole theory.
“It has often been said that if the ground is beaten or otherwise made to tremble, worms believe they are pursued by a mole and leave their burrows,” he wrote. “From one account I have received, I have no doubt that this is often the case; but a gentleman informs me he lately saw eight or ten worms leave their burrows and crawl about the grass on some boggy land on which two men had just trampled while setting a trap; and this occurred in a part of Ireland where there were no moles. I have been assured by a Volunteer he has often seen many large earth-worms crawling quickly about the grass, a few minutes after his company had fired a volley with blank cartridges.”
Darwin also wrote about a bird, the peewit, that “seems to know instinctively that worms will emerge if the ground is made to tremble.” A young peewit kept in confinement, he said, would “stand on one leg and beat the turf with the other leg until the worms crawled out of their burrows, when they were instantly devoured.”
Other animals have been observed hunting worms in similar fashion, including red-billed gulls in New Zealand, the kagu bird of New Caledonia, the American woodcock, olive thrushes in South Africa and even the wood turtle of the eastern U.S., which drums its feet on the ground to raise worms. Perhaps some fisherman long ago watched animals such as these as they gathered their dinner in this unusual manner and decided that he might collect his bait in similar fashion.
Nowadays, it’s simpler buying worms at your local bait shop. But if you want to save a little money and have some fun collecting your own bait, give fiddling a try. For a really good time, take your kids and grandkids, too. This is a great family outing. You do the fiddling and let the youngsters collect the worms in small pails or tin cans. Then grab some poles and you’re ready for some fishing fun.