National Geographic : 2004 Apr
WISCASSET, MAINE glasses. Her answer, like Miss Tucker herself, was direct and unsparing. "What to do? Why, die. Get out of the way," she said. Wiscasset's claim to worm capital of the world, like its prettiest village status, may not be provable but is certainly believable. We're talking bloodworms and sandworms here. If you're a bait fisherman, you know exactly what that means. If not, then take it on faith that worms are to a flounder what foie gras is to a Frenchman-a delicacy to die for. A fisherman in California will happily fork over 50 cents a worm for the pleasure of placing a wriggling piece of slime on the hook in hopes of catching The Big One. A worm digger works knee-deep in taupe colored, fetid mud that clings to legs like a drowning man to a buoy. At my behest Doug Schmal, a third-generation digger, took me out on the mudflats. Watch that first step out of the boat. Mine was a disaster. I sank deep in mud, hopelessly stuck. Knowing I could never break loose, I left my boots in the mud, slogged to higher, solid ground, and sat on a rock while Schmal pulled them out. Then I watched him hack through the muck with his hoe in search of his quarry. Smirk if you like at the idea of digging worms: On a good day Schmal makes $180 for five hours' work (at 12 cents a sandworm, that adds up to 1,500 worms) and takes the rest of the day off to play golf. Of course there are $30 days, and, he hastens to add, "I have a hardworking wife who helps support me." The prime hangout for worm diggers is the Miss Wiscasset Diner south of town, where U.S. 1 becomes the town's commercial strip. The usual roadside flora prevails: gas stations, motels, a trailer or two, and Big Al's Super Values. Big Al is Al Cohen, the self A proclaimed Undertaker of Merchandise, David Cronk (above) piles sandworms in his bait cel lar, where he pays diggers like childhood pal Doug Schmal (below and left) 12 cents a worm. "It's a backbreaking Job, but it gets in your blood," says Schmal, a third-generation digger who tolls in the "gooey, sloppy" mudflats of the Back River.