Live Bait Bosses: The Worm Picker

It’s a cinch you’ve never heard of them, but these seven men have likely helped more anglers put more fish in their boats than all the guides in North America.

The Worm Picker
Dirk Dekker / Moorefield, Ontario, Canada

From left: Dekker prepares a worm shipment in his warehouse; the harvest. Photographs by Finn O'Hara

Dekker’s first night crawling for worms was in the spring of 1986, when he realized that his pig farm in Moorefield, Ontario, wasn’t going to pay the bills for his family of five. Picking nightcrawlers was a dirty job that had sustained Canadians for decades, but few were willing to swallow enough pride to stoop, literally, that low. But after a month of supplying a local buyer, Dekker saw a bright future in the mud at his feet.

“The supplier I sold my worms to had been in the business for 30 years and wanted to sell out. So, I bought it and created Country Bait.” And over the past 29 years, Dekker, now 59, has managed to build one of the biggest nightcrawler supply houses (country bait.com) in North America, shipping millions of worms throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

“When I started picking in 1986, a good night for one person was 10,000. Now, a really good picker can get 25,000 worms per night. The unofficial record for one person is 50,000 earthworms in a single night.”

To pick nightcrawlers, a person suits up with a tin can strapped to each ankle. One can is filled with sawdust, the other holds the gathered worms. “You can pick one worm with no problem. The second one is slippery, and the third is downright impossible to grab unless you submerge your fingers in the sawdust.”

Pickers work the fields with a can strapped to each leg—one for ’crawler containment and the other filled with sawdust to dry worm-slimed fingers.

With the help of a headlamp, you look for worms that have come to the surface to eat or mate. On a decent night, you hardly have to move more than a yard to grab 50 worms. “When you watch a field full of pickers, they look motionless. You have to move very slowly but react quickly to grab a worm before it gets back in its hole. You leave the small ones and snatch the big ones. For each one you grab, there may be 10 more that get away.”

Once the can is full, the worms are dumped into a small mesh bag and left in the field. After the sun comes up, each picker goes back and collects his bags and delivers them to the foreman at the site.

“Once we get the worms to our warehouse, we go through a two-part process to make sure we deliver only the finest product to our partners,” says Dekker. “First, we put all the worms in boxes of soil. The strong, healthy worms will dig their way to the bottom while the weak worms stay on top. After two weeks, we flip the boxes and grab all the ones at the bottom and put them in cartons of peat moss.”

If demand doesn’t equal his supply, the worms are stored in a huge cooler, where they are fed and re-bedded once a month.

“This business isn’t for everybody, though,” Dekker says. “On a really good night, a picker can earn up to $600. But on a bad night, it might only be $100.”

​Dekker's Wriggler

Catch 'Em Up
"To pick your own worms, go to a recently tilled field at night after a good rain. Optimal air temperature is between 55 and 70 degrees. When you see one, quickly grab it but don't pull. Eventually it will relax enough for you to remove it from the hole without ripping it in half."

Rig 'Em Up
"Instead of threading the entire worm body on a hook, leave some small sections dangling free. Part of the enticement of healthy, live worms is the wiggle. If you thread the whole bait on the shank, you lose this attraction."

CHECK OUT THE OTHER BAIT BOSSES