Alabama Folkways Articles
October 1995

ALABAMA FOLKWAYS: WORM FIDDLING IN THE WIREGRASS
By Steve Grauberger

 

Alabamians who fish often patronize local bait shops and pay more than 10 cents each for the locally famous Blountstown Worm. A more self-reliant sportsman or sportswoman, however, will seek out his own bait in a more traditional way, by "fiddling," "snoring," or "doodling" up the slimy creatures from their deep and dark hiding place. The terms mentioned above relate to a possibly ancient procedure which induces earthworms to mysteriously appear above ground as if by magic.

In North Carolina, it is reported, one goes about "calling" worms by twanging the handle of a pitchfork after its prong end is driven into the soil. This rhythmic action sends out vibrations into the ground that causes the worms to surface. A general term used in Alabama for similar practices is "worm fiddling."

The expression, "worm fiddling," may be derived from a variant technique accomplished by cutting down a sapling approximately 2-3 feet from the ground and then sawing down through the diameter of the tree. This operation, similar to pulling a bow across a fiddle string, sends vibrations into the ground bringing up mesmerized volunteers for one to pick up at will. In Southeast Alabama, another method of worm fiddling exists and is demonstrated at a yearly contest in the Wiregrass.

In Geneva, a worm-fiddling contest is part of the annual Geneva River Festival, a popular event held at Robert Fowler Memorial Park located at the juncture of the Pea and Choctawhatchee Rivers. The River Festival's Contest is in its 19th year and is now organized by Pat Williams, an avid fisherman. Thousands of people each year attend Geneva's River Festival and the worm-fiddling contest is one attraction in which both young and old participate.

There was, however, a forerunner to the Geneva River Festival Worm Fiddling Contest. This was held 15 miles away in the nearby town of Caryville, Florida located near the Pea River across the Alabama-Florida border. The first Caryville contest started in 1974 as part of a land sales campaign for the private Caryville Campsites. Afterward, it was sustained through the hard work of Jack and Joanne Palmer when the town of Caryville adopted the event as part of Florida's U.S. bicentennial celebration in 1976. Unfortunately, in 1994 and 1995 the town could not hold its annual Labor Day weekend contest because of circumstances following the devastating flood of the Pea River in 1994.

Pat Williams and Jack Palmer are both originally from Geneva, Alabama and have collected worms for fishing since they were young boys-Pat in Geneva and Jack in Caryville, Florida. When questioned in separate interviews, both men told me that the name they always knew for their particular method of fiddling was "worm snoring." To "snore up" a worm, a person drives a short (approximately 1-2 ft.) stake or "stob" into the ground and then rubs a "pusher" such as a brick, old piece of iron, the head of an ax, a piece of wood, or almost anything suitable across the stake. The snoring sound made by rubbing the "pusher" over the stob gives the term its name. This is the way it has been done in both of the towns' contests.

As a boy, Jack Palmer and his friends would sell the worms they "snored up" to older fishermen in the Caryville area. "We'd get us a gallon syrup bucket and we would grab us a brick and a stob. We would go out in these woods, we'd drive it down (the stob) and snore them earthworms up. We'd get 'em and count 'em and put 'em in this bucket." In Troy, the word "doodling" is the common term used for the same method of worm gathering.

Only the type of worms known as earthworms react to the trick of terrestrial vibration. Other worm types, such as those called "wigglers," do not dance to the same earthly music. Alabama Fish and Game Officer William Maddox of Abbeville, who has personal experience in the sawed sapling method of "worm fiddling," said that the largest earthworms are eight inches or more in a contracted state, and if held up in the air can stretch from waist-high to the ground.

Pat Williams of Geneva explains that some of the largest worms are now collected in the forests of Calhoun County, Florida for the retail market and are sold under the brand name of Blountstown Worms. These are caught by the same means of "snoring," only a longer stob is used and gallons of the creatures are taken off the ground. These can be bought in many bait shops in the Wiregrass region.

Large earthworms are not generally caught at the two worm fiddling contests now due to environmental and industrial changes in the areas where the contest are held. Jack Palmer explains, "When I was a little boy they were huge, don't know what happened. of course, in those days there weren't no armadillos. I just don't know what happened to them, they just aren't there no more (the large earthworms). I call them little sand worms now (the ones snored up now)."

During my worm fiddling research, I have learned several techniques that may help me win 1st prize when I enter one or both of the Wiregrass contests next year. Moreover, I will attempt a more modern approach; that is, to take the movable chain off of a chain saw, start up the machine, and stick the rounded tip into the ground. I can then relax during the contest's 15 minute time limit only having to pick up the little critters and collect my prize.