We’ve all heard of snake charming—the age-old image of a deadly cobra raising its hooded head from a wicker basket at the crooning call of an instrument immediately comes to mind–but fewer of us have heard of the South’s own mythical invertebrate charming. Call it worm snoring, worm fiddling, worm grunting, or worm charming, practicers of the art can draw earthworms from the ground as easily as cornbread from an oven. The slimy critters wriggle their way to the surface at the call of the grunter only to be thrown in a dirty bucket, which will serve as vehicle of their fate as fish bait.
Just as well witching uses a divining rod to mysteriously uncover hidden pockets of water, worm grunting employs a stake and metal rod to unearth worms. Expert worm grunters drive a wooden stake, or “stob,” into a promising-looking patch of ground, and then rub a flat piece of steel (usually a discarded car part), called a “rooping iron,” back and forth against the head of the exposed stake. The resulting sound is something between the extensive “ribbit” of a bullfrog and the screech of door hinges in poor repair. The sound seems to draw the worms to the surface, as irresistible a seduction as experienced by children to the Pied Piper.
As it turns out, it’s not the music of the grunters that attracts the worms at all. For years scientists puzzled over the cause of the invertebrates’ uncontrollable magnetism to the grunters. Some theorized that the snoring sound was similar to the pitter-patter of rainfall which inspired the worms to begin their ascent. In 2008 researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered the true explanation for the worms’ seemingly inexplicable behavior: the vibrations sent through the earth by worm snoring mimic the sound of the worms’ hungriest predator, the eastern American mole. When the worms sense those tell-tale vibrations, they naturally flee to the surface to avoid the approaching predator and, ironically, wiggle right into the fingers of their modern enemy. Once scientists made the connection between the vibrations and the running reflex of the wiggly invertebrates, they quickly realized that humans were far from the first animals to mimic the worms’ fearsome predators. Wood turtles, herring gulls, and a variety of other birds also imitate the vibrations made by moles, whether induced by stomping or pecking beaks.
Although worm charming is practiced across the globe, the heart of the custom lies in the South. Sopchoppy, Florida, claims to be the worm gruntin’ capital of the world—and with good reason. Every year, Sopchoppy is home to the Worm Gruntin’ Festival, where locals and out-of-towners alike gather to honor the practice. The annual celebration features the normal festival activities, like live music and libations, as well as events unique to Sopchoppy. The Worm Gruntin’ Festival naturally features a worm grunting contest, but in recent years the contest has become closed to adults, after previous competitions became too fierce. The festival concludes with the crowning of that year’s Worm Gruntin’ King and Queen, a true honor. Competitors from across the globe threaten to dethrone Sopchoppy as capital of worm grunting; similar competitions occur in Geneva, Alabama; Shelbourne, Ontario; and Willaston and Devon, England. In fact, the World Worm Charming Championships have taken place in Willaston since 1980. But none can dispute the superiority of both the worm grunters and their prey in Sopchoppy, where the art form will surely be passed down for generations.
Next time you need bait for your pole, look no further than your own back yard. Sopchoppy’s experts advise choosing a damp patch of ground and grunting early in the day, when worms are closer to the surface. Simply drive a wooden stake into the ground, rub your own rooping iron across the top and watch as worms quiver at your call. Just don’t be surprised when your neighbors begin referring to you as the Worm Whisperer.