Big-Fat Worm Shortage Causing Big Fat Fishing Woes


By Scott Calvert

A shortage of big, fat worms called nightcrawlers--a popular bait with freshwater anglers in the U.S.--has pushed up prices nationwide and temporarily wiped out some merchants' stock at the height of summer fishing season.

The culprit is bad weather in Ontario, Canada, where nightcrawlers are handpicked in the wild and shipped south by the millions. First, the long winter delayed picking from March to May. Then a dry May kept the moisture-loving creatures burrowed deep underground.

This spring's dearth of Canadian nightcrawlers, the worst in 26 years according to suppliers, has caused havoc with supply chains, affecting mom-and-pop bait shops and nationwide sellers. Some stores have raised prices, while others have held the line. At the same time, some bait shops say they have noticed little change in supply or price.

DMF Bait Co., a major wholesaler in Waterford, Mich., had to pay its Canadian suppliers double the usual price, said chief executive Dan Beaudoin. Even so, the company couldn't fill all its orders for the first time in its 37-year history. Though the crimp in supply has eased, he said his firm is still paying 80% more than usual.

DMF has raised prices on its customers, which include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other national chains, by about 20%. "We're taking a massive, massive hit this year financially," said Mr. Beaudoin. DMF's net income for the year is 65% below forecast.

Wholesalers appear to be bearing the brunt of the higher prices to avoid potentially driving away customers.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the chain has worked with DMF to help ensure nightcrawlers are available in high-demand areas. She declined to comment on whether Wal-Mart has raised retail prices.

Stewart's Shops, a convenience-store chain in New York state and Vermont, has run out of nightcrawlers at some of its 290 stores that sell the worms, frustrating anglers, a spokeswoman said.

"Yes, we have no worms," Stewart's President Gary Dake said on Twitter before the Fourth of July weekend, peak fishing time. "Who knew nightcrawler harvesting was affected by weather?"

Mr. Dake said his shops would be restocked soon with nightcrawlers.

The U.S. annually imports more than $20 million in live worms from Canada, the U.S. Commerce Department says.

Nightcrawlers, so named because they surface at night, exist across the northern U.S., but commercial picking operations are concentrated in Ontario. The plump creatures can reach 6 inches long.

For months, Ontario's bad worm-plucking weather has had a domino effect, starting with Canadian companies that buy from pickers.

Andreas Benechoutsos, president of Olympic Wholesale Bait in Scarborough, Ontario, said pickers demanded twice as much pay amid the shortage. He says he now pays worm hunters about $40 per thousand worms. He said he has also paid to water fields in hope of enticing worms to ditch the dirt.

In response, Mr. Benechoutsos said, he had to raise his prices nearly 80% from around $45 per thousand worms last year, to about $80. "I've never seen a year like this year," he said.

Neither has Jack Strawbrich, not since a severe dry spell in 1988. Mr. Strawbrich, the majority owner of Weekley's Wholesale Bait, outside Buffalo, N.Y., buys nightcrawlers from Olympic but hasn't been able to satisfy all his clients, which includes Stewart's.

"We've told customers they're not going to get everything they need or want, but they're not going to ever be without worms," he said.

Another Weekley's customer, Mike's Bait in Gambrills, Md., which distributes to 1,200 stores, is paying 20% more for Weekley's worms, owner Mike Baldea says, and charging his own customers more.

Randy Fearl, owner of Fearl's Bait & Tackle outside Baltimore, said he is just grateful that Mr. Baldea has kept the nightcrawlers coming. The shop's customers pay about $4 per dozen, up from $3.75 weeks ago.

While customer James Iman said he doesn't want to pay more for nightcrawlers when he takes his children fishing, a 25-cent increase won't stop him. "I do it for the kids," he said.

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