Somewhere along the Maine coast, a man trudges through thick mud as the tide forces the river to retreat toward the ocean. Slicing the mud with his tined, handheld hoe, the digger’s eyes scan the scene beneath him for his squiggling adversary — Glycera dibranchiata, the common bloodworm. Spying one on the move, he plucks it from its hidey-hole and plops it into a holding bucket.
Millions of bloodworms are harvested each year in Maine and Canada, then wind up at tackle shops, where they’re divvied up by the dozen and sold to eager anglers as bait. However, few worms receive the loving care that Dee Tochterman, of Tochterman’s Tackle in Baltimore, gives her bloodworms. Her reputation for having some of the best worms on the East Coast has earned her the nickname “Worm Girl.”
Situated in the heart of Baltimore, Tochterman’s Tackle has been in business for 101 years. Tommy Tochterman started selling bait out of his home here in 1916, and today his son Tony and Tony’s wife, Dee, run the show. Bubbly and cheerful, Dee started working at the shop in 1993 and soon took over worm duty for Tony’s mother. She noticed almost immediately that the shop was throwing away hundreds, if not thousands, of worms.
“We were tossing out as many as half the worms we got in,” Tochterman says. “Times were too tight to throw away all that money, so we had to figure something out.”
She studied the worms’ natural habitat to determine what they needed to thrive. She had water samples shipped in from Maine, and she queried her worm diggers and suppliers about water temperatures. Biologists from the National Aquarium in Baltimore also got involved. After some trial and error, Tochterman eventually came up with a refrigerated brine to store the worms. “It took a while to get it just right,” she says.
When she receives a shipment — the shop turns around as many as 20,000 to 30,000 worms a week in high season — she opens the boxes and handles each worm before putting it into a colander. She places dead and injured worms into a separate container. “I can feel whether a worm is OK or not just by feeling it with fingertips,” she says.
After sorting a couple hundred worms into the colander, she retrieves a gallon jug of brine from a grocery-storestyle cooler and tests the salinity with a hydrometer. If the water is just right, the worms in the colander get a cold saltwater bath before being placed into a shallow plastic tray. The bloodworms double and triple in size after being in the water for a few minutes. “They plump right up and start squiggling back on themselves to get clean,” she says.
She stacks the trays of worms in a refrigerator case, where they are monitored until sold. “We keep a careful eye on the temperature and change their water and rinse them as often as twice a day. Keeping up with it is a full-time job,” says Tochterman, who also repairs fishing rods and helps Tony with the store’s day-to-day operations.
Her worms are so popular that anglers must reserve them, and there’s often a waiting list. “I’ve got anglers from North Carolina and New Jersey who drive hours to get them,” she says. “Folks make a ritual out of it. They drive down, grab a corned beef sandwich at Attman’s [Delicatessen] and then come in to pick up their worms. They make a whole trip out of the experience. Some people call our worms ‘filet mignon for fish.’ ”
Packed in seaweed, the worms are sold by the dozen for $12. Jumbos are $18. Business is booming, but Tochterman is worried about the state of the bloodworm fishery in Maine. “There have been a couple of bad years,” she says. “Numbers are down, and I hear some folks are harvesting worms before they’ve had a chance to spawn. That’s not good. I’m hopeful things will turn around, though.”
A line of anglers greets her as she walks me out to the front of the store. She knows every one of them by name. “Hi, Marty! Hi, James,” she says, marking each customer’s pickup in a thick book.
“Where are you fishing today?” she asks.
“I’m going to work my way over there,” a customer responds. “Ain’t nothing like Mrs. Dee’s worms. They catch fish like nothing else.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2017 issue.