Sandworm Supply Woes

If you are planning on using sand worms for bait this summer, you may want to have a backup plan. Many tackle shops in the Northeast have had difficulties acquiring quality ones this year.

Sand worms, which are typically 6 to 8 inches long, are known to be excellent bait for striped bass and flounder. These worms are in high demand during saltwater fishing season, with some bait shops estimating they account for around 30% of total bait sold during the summer months.

Commercial sand worm harvest is concentrated in Down East Maine. Diggers labor strenuously to harvest the worms, which can only be dug during low tides on certain mudflats. In optimal conditions, a few hours of work can result in a couple hundred dollars of income for a digger. This part-time work was once a solid source of income for many in Maine, but lax regulations and years of high demand have led to overharvesting.

According to the Maine Department of Marine Resources, around 255,000 pounds of sandworms were harvested in 2013, compared to the roughly 950,000 pounds harvested back in 1973.

While demand outpacing the supply has caused a shortage of sand worms, the reason for a decline in sandworm quality is tougher to explain. (Many shops have described them as being too mushy, falling apart when touched and almost liquefying in their containers.)

Alitta virens (Photo courtesy:
Alitta virens (Photo courtesy:

One explanation is that long-time diggers who are no longer seeing a good return on time spent harvesting are abandoning the trade, leaving only inexperienced diggers to harvest the worms. These diggers are less likely to store the worms properly.

Others maintain that competition from the shellfish industry is hurting the sand worm populations. Since clams and sand worms are usually found on the same mudflats, vibrations caused by large shellfish barges are thought to have a negative effect on the worms’ availability and quality.

Farm-raised sand worms could help meet the demand of Northeast anglers. In 2003, a British company called Seabait, aided by a $500,000 grant from the Maine Technology Institute, set out to establish an indoor aquaculture project that could farm-raise sand worms. The company contended it would be able to produce high-quality worms of universal size and color, but it faced substantial resistance from members of the commercial digging industry. As political pressure mounted, the grant money ran out and the company eventually went into receivership, ceasing to exist.

If you find yourself unable to purchase quality sand worms, there are other options. For flounder and striped bass fishing, clams are a suitable substitute. If you are fishing tube-and-worm rigs for striped bass, try substituting Berkley Gulp Alive Sand worms for the real thing.

10 on “Sandworm Supply Woes

  1. Marko

    I have found night crawlers to be very effective in saltwater. 1. They are usually less expensive. 2. Crawlers do not have pinchers and are easier too hook ( better for kids, female anglers, and the amateur) 3. Crawlers are tougher and stay on the hook a little better. 4. There is usually a good supply. 5. If kept refrigerated and above freezing, crawlers last longer. 6. Crawlers are awesome scup bait. 7. Saltwater makes a crawler squirm like crazy… Did I mention great bait for scup and kids!

    The bad: crawlers are not native to saltwater, and might die after long exposure ( I have never had one in the saltwater for more than 20 minutes, never had a dead one, but they move slower after a while). Crawlers are not as bloody, and may not leave a good scent trail. I have tried crawlers on a tube/worm rig and only caught bluefish, gulp may be better for trolling, but I do not use this method very often.

    Try it,

    1. James

      I totally agree, I have used them for a long time and have always had success with them.

  2. Ron

    Bridge Street Sports in Salem Massachusetts is one of if not the last shops standing in the Bay State which employs a stable of long-term worm diggers. Noel Leslie, the proprietor and a digger himself, has a unique perspective into this. He blames the disappearing muscle beds as the culprit; salts didn’t call seaworms clamworms for nothing. The reason according to him is chemicals released into the sea from treatment plants which are making for clearer but possibly more sterile water! Again, that’s his take but when a decades-long digger says there’s something wrong you can bank on it. The recent results from the much-hyped “supermoon” prove the point further. The diggers had their eyes on that date for weeks figuring they’d hit the mother lode of worms because they’d be turning over nearly virgin flats, they were wrong the mud had basically nothing in it – yikes!

  3. James

    I agree with Marko. I have used night crawlers for years in the surf. Back in the day sandworms were meaty and held on the hook allot better. Nowadays they turn into mush. Night crawlers on the other hand can stay on the hook pretty well for about 15-20 minutes. They are pretty much dead after that. My kids love using them because we catch flounder as well as striped bass with them. Sandworms are crazy expensive too. I can get two dozen night crawlers for 6 bucks.

    Try them out on the salt, I think all experienced fisherman know that you can catch some pretty nice sized fish in the salt on night crawlers.

    Tight lines everyone,
    James P.

  4. Ashlyn

    We have a house on water so on our neach there is a sandworm flat that we dig worms up

  5. Dai Yongchun

    I need sandward. Have been living in Vancouver of Canada. I’d like to know where I can buy it .
    Be rgds

  6. Scott

    I dig for Noel and its true… the mussel bed was a feast for the worms and now they’re gone…and the worms are less and less each year.

  7. Dean

    I’ve been a commercial fisherman and clam and worm digger for over 40 years I still dig worms for Noel at bridge st sports Noel is spot on the treatment plants r pumping chlorine every out going tide and have been for over 40years there’s no more ellgrass no more mussels and no more green lettuce kelp that all the fry could hide under if you put a gallon of bleach in a 5 gallon fish tank what do you think will happen the water will clear up but nothing will survive 40years ago there was gillnets all over the harbor you could go out and get 50 60 flounder or more in a couple hours they stopped gillneting and dragging in the early 80s that’s almost 40 years ago where are the fish they are not there sure a few still come in and spawn but the fry can’t survive no where to hide comer ants scates and stripers get them we used to fill a 5 gallon bucket with worms in less than a hour and half today we dig 2 and half hours and we get 3 quarts the government won’t listen I doubt I will see a comeback in my lifetime

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