Quick! Before the worm turns

It takes the patience of a fisherman to snatch bait from the sand, writes Harriet Alexander.

When Col Buckley trawls Sydney's northern beaches for slimy pinkheads and solid greenheads, people often stop to wonder what on earth he is doing.

There he is, pliers in one hand and a pilchard in the other, wading in the wash from a stocking of berley. He is catching worms and the tourists are none too pleased to hear it.

"Worms on the beach?" they say. "But I lay on the beach yesterday."

Beach worming is the least understood, yet one of the most skilled, pursuits in fishing culture, requiring laser vision, lightning hands and superhuman patience.

Worming is an art mastered by the renaissance fisherman, who knows the superiority of bait native to the beach where he is casting. "They're like Tim Tams to whiting and bream," says Buckley, who produced the DVD Whiting Fever.

Buckley can be found splashing around the watermark at low tide during summer, pulling up slimy invertebrates and stuffing them into a pouch. They sniff out decaying fish and seaweed and poke their heads up to feed, concealing the rest of their bodies, which can be up to 2½ metres long, beneath the sand. Bream, whiting and flathead all like to eat worms, although the portion of worm threaded on to the hook needs to be varied according to the size of the targeted fish species. Recreational fishermen can harvest up to 20 worms a day, although Buckley does not believe in taking more than are needed.

If possible, it is better to seize them with fingers than pliers because tools can damage the worm so they can't be released if they're not used. "But let me tell you, some of the worms are so strong you've got to use pliers," Buckley says. "They're this tall" - he holds his hand above his shoulder - "and they're thick. When they come up, they actually stretch."

On this particular day, he does not fancy his chances of landing a bumper worm harvest at Warriewood Beach. The wind makes the worms shy. Buckley stuffs an old stocking with pilchards to create a stink and ties it to a stick he pegs into the sand. Then he looks for the V-shaped pattern created in the wash when a worm sticks its head above the sand. He creeps behind the worm with another piece of stink bait held close to its head and, when it arches its neck to clamp down on the bait, Buckley strikes. He closes his pliers around its head and draws its thrashing form from the sand. That's the idea, anyway.

After about an hour, Buckley has landed two medium-size worms. Two small ones ("bootlaces") raised their heads but neither lingered long enough to feel the squeeze of pliers behind the neck. "Look at this one; he's still an embryo," Buckley says. "This must be the nursery or something."

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Finally, a big one pushes its head through the sand, wriggling its little feet like a dying spider around the bait. Buckley snaps his pliers around its neck. It dives back down, taking the pliers with it, and after an interminable moment, Buckley begins to pull it back up. But as it reaches the surface, he cries out with frustration. The head has broken off. "I got too keen," Buckley says.

He and a friend taught themselves to catch worms 30 years ago, although it was a rough beginning. One would pull them up and the other would cut off their heads with a shovel.

There is, however, a dark side to the worming industry. Vic Milton, a professional beach wormer and former coalminer, has witnessed a depletion of worms on the mid-north coast. He catches up to 200 a day and sells them for $1 to $1.50 each. But there is no limit on bag sizes for licensed wormers and he has seen others harvest up to 1000 a day.

"They're catching way, way more than they should be catching," Milton says.

"I could catch 800 a day if I wanted to but they wouldn't be quality, they would be a lot of smaller ones and [it's risking] the destruction of the industry if they keep doing that."

Overharvesting has caused the destruction of the pipi industry on the mid-north coast. "That's what I'm worried about. I'm 63 years old and I've seen beaches annihilated as far as beach worms are going," Milton says.

He believes it has already happened to beach worms on the central coast on NSW and around Newcastle and professional wormers from those areas are moving north, blaming the depletion of local stock on winter storms. He confronted one man recently who admitted to harvesting about 20,000 worms last Christmas. "I said, 'Don't you care about tomorrow?"' Milton says. "Ten years ago we were getting strong, big worms. They were beauties but they just got overharvested that hard."

It sounds like bad news for the amateur wormer but Milton, who learnt to catch worms as a boy, says it is still possible to find them - if you have the knack. His two sons and his daughter have been catching beach worms since they were eight years old.

"But I've got brothers who will never catch any in their whole life and I've showed them and showed them," he says. "I have a sister and I showed her and she could catch them within five minutes. Some people can, some people can't. It's not a matter of being quick; it's a matter of being gentle and smooth."

Back at Warriewood, Buckley has given up hope of catching any more worms on this windy afternoon.

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