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How to Catch Beachworms with Bagpipes

Live beach worms are gun bait for any fisherman. But they remain a luxury purchase in the bait shop. I still have a large bloodworm on lay-by. So for years I have sat on beaches, sulking with my frozen worm or pilchard, greedily eyeing the wily fisho flanking me who periodically dips his hands into a writhing bait bucket of fishing gold, not before hauling in one fat whiting after another.

What’s the secret?

In principle it’s easy. Stroll down the beach with your stink bait, fill up your sack with worms, fish with them, marry a Super Model, lose three stone, grow more hair, drive a Porsche, um, I think you get the picture… Worming is deceptively complex. Loads of fishing mags have ‘how-to articles’ but so what?

Recently however, I struck ‘fishing pay dirt’ in the form of ‘Joan of Arc’—as I’ve dubbed her. Joan is a lovely lady in her mid 70s who regularly fishes my ribbon of beach. Joan is a gun wormer. I’ve seen her bag a clutch of worms at high tide!

So Joan kindly invited me worming. They say teach a man to fish and you’ll feed him forever. I say, ‘teach a man to worm and he’ll give you his first born and possibly his stereo’.

The stocking/stink bait ensemble is de rigueur for any wormer. A three-day-old mullet will suffice but the gun stink bait is fresh smoked kippers. They’ll cost you, mind. But worms will perform a veritable highland jig across the sand when they smell these golden babies. If you can’t find smoked kippers, try any novel by Geoffrey Archer.

Women don’t wear stockings much these days so my wife couldn’t oblige. I was forced to (gulp!) buy my own pair. This was traumatic. Fishnets? Flesh-coloured? Surgical? What?? As I took my slinky black pair with reinforced gusset to the counter at Big W, a round-shouldered girl with flat hair on the checkout said, “I don’t think these are your size, sir”. I laughed overloudly in order for the other shoppers to hear. “I’m worming today. I need them for my stink bait”. To which she replied, “Sure you are, you creepy old freak” but it came out as “That’ll be $5.50”.

Joan suggested I first invest in a pair of worming pliers. She recommends filing the ends so they are at more of a point. I note Joan has an old brass pair with more teeth than an American evangelist. She has many worming tricks. She says worms don’t like windy days. Worms don’t like weed on the beaches. Worms don’t like songs by Danni Minogue—but then who does?

I struggled along as per usual. From the mustard coloured shallows, I watched Joan with a mixture of envy and frustration as she pulled up one worm after another, as if plucking strands of spaghetti from a plate. After she pulled out a metre-long worm that would have easily fed a small family of four in Adelaide, it was time to plead for help. Hey, I was on my knees anyway.

Joan wandered across and stood over me as I dragged the costly Scottish kippers along the sand. I watched for their little white bearded heads to pop up through the sand and form the trademark V in the ebb. Spying two fat ones, I knelt down to tempt them into the clutches of my pliers, humming ‘The Flower of Scotland’. But I couldn’t nail one. Suddenly Joan, who had wandered off, flagged me over. She had a great beast by the head and asked me to help her lift it from the sand in order to feel what it was like to actually pull one from its hide. (I tore the head off one earlier with misguided hubris while singing Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’. I then moaned about it for 20 minutes.) Tip: Joan has a little rope around her pliers attached to her wrist so she can drop the pliers if needed and lift with two hands, though she mostly lifts with pliers and one hand simultaneously. Nevertheless, she always lifts with two hands. As I dug my hand in the wet sand I felt the worm’s taut body anchored to the seabed. The frisson of the moment was overwhelming. With consternation, we eventually pulled it out. It was thrilling. I mean, I didn’t catch it per se but at least had a hand in its capture.

Back on my knees and with a sackful of sand in my undies, Joan advised me to turn my hand over and catch them backhand so to speak. I don’t remember why but it proved effective. (Something to do with coming up and under them with the pliers rather than jabbing at them overhead.) The trick is to not let them feel the pliers until you’re ready to strike. As soon as you tickle their sides, they are off to China calling you names. You won’t see them again in your lifetime. It’s a one shot deal. If you miss a worm, move on.

Joan suggests lifting the hand-bait slightly as you entice them to dine. (Psst! tie a string around the hand-bait too, so you can drop it without losing it in the surf.) Then wait for them to arch their backs like a wriggling question mark. This is when they loosen their anchor-like grip on the sand for a nanosecond. Once you have them by the head, resist the overwhelming temptation to reef them out of the sand in one strike as I did, thereby ripping their heads off in the style of Marie Antoinette. Drop the stink bait and dig your other hand in and lift them with two hands, carefully, SLOWLY. One hand with the pliers at the head, the other hand around its torso—if a worm indeed has a torso—and lift in one fluid motion.

Joan doesn’t use a secondary hand-bait, simply her primary stocking bait but warns against soft fish hand-baits like pipis or pilchards where the worms take a bite and scram. Squid or occy is best as it’s tougher. (I was using a piece of kipper in a toe of stocking.)

When it comes to keeping the worms, Joan rubs them in dry (not wet!) sand. She argues that they go off quicker in wet sand. They form their own slime that moistens the sand regardless, she argues. Put them in an old margarine container (with holes) on a freezer brick and keep them in a cool place—like under the house. They will last about three days before smelling like a corpse. (God, they smell when they go off!) Joan never freezes them. I argued that when you buy them in packets from the bait shop they are frozen but she suspects bait manufacturers put the worms in some solution that prevents them from becoming slimy when frozen. She may be right. But, hey, they freeze ok for me.

After an hour and a half of near misses, I grew dark. I was wet, my back was sore, I had sand in every orifice and it was beer-o’clock. Then Joan observed I was disturbing the sand too much before trying to secure the elusive little buggers. I altered my technique accordingly and at last, I cracked it! I snared my first worm! I held it aloft. I then kissed it and ran around like Mr. Bean. Joan winked and gave a knowing smile in the late kipper gold sunlight. After that, I pulled out three in a row. It was a snack. (Hey, one lousy frozen worm in a packet will set you back $3.50!)

Since then, I have been worming most weekends and never fail to find them. I finally cracked it.