Pardon Dee Tochterman if she doesn't have time for more than a quick hello. She has worms to wash. Thousands of them.
Every day from spring to late fall, Tochterman is the head worm wrangler at T.G. Tochterman & Sons, the 94-year-old tackle shop on Eastern Avenue. Her specialty is bloodworms, the nasty critters from the mud flats of Maine and Canada that squirt blood and bite.
Anglers love them. But the fish of the Chesapeake Bay — stripers, spot and croaker — love them even more.
Four to five times a week, Tochterman takes delivery of brown cardboard boxes, sometimes as many as 40, with 250 worms to the carton. During the early weeks of summer she sells "15,000 a week, easy." But come August "we're doing 30,000."
That's 30,000 worms. A week. And like a great home run hitter, Tochterman touches them all.
"You have to keep them clean. You have to keep them cold. You have to change their water," she says, ticking off the important tasks of a worm wrangler.
Her attention to detail over 17 seasons has earned Tochterman, 53, the nickname "Worm Girl."
She wasn't always the go-to worm woman. That job was held for decades by her mother-in-law, tackle shop owner Tony Tochterman's mom, who sorted and boxed the bait. When the then-Dee Taylor came on board in 1993, she not only won the job with her conscientiousness, she won the owner's heart.
One thing she noticed right away: a lot of the inventory was dying before it could be sold.
"When I first came, there was so much money at stake and we were fighting to stay alive. Every penny counted," Tochterman says of the plight of most mom-and-pop tackle shops. "There was too much waste."
So Tochterman studied her wormology, taking note of the habitat where worms thrive. To mimic their surroundings, Tochterman had jugs of water shipped from Maine so she could study the salinity. Then she began making her own worm water, gallons of it.
The worms perked up and so did the tackle shop's reputation as the bait place.
"These are the best worms around," said angler Melvin Cox, who was putting down $10.38 for a dozen regular-size worms (jumbos are $13.99). "The size, the cleanliness. They make you look at them in the box because they want you to see the quality."
Despite their scary looks and nasty reputation, bloodworms dish it out better than they can take it. Carnivorous creatures, they have mouths like bear traps that inject venom into their prey. But being unable to swim makes them easy marks for gulls, crustaceans and bigger worms. Burrowing into the giant tidal mudflats of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes provides their only cover.
Standing in a backroom workspace a little wider than the spread of her outstretched arms, Tochterman starts by plucking the worms from the grass they're shipped in and dropping them into a kitchen colander for a bath. She dips her fingers into what looks like a writhing ball of cream-colored noodles and begins sorting: dead ones discarded, healthy ones placed in flat trays with a small amount of water in the bottom.
The trays get stacked four or five high in an old deli display case kept between 45 degrees and 48 degrees. Every day, the worms get the spa treatment from Tochterman — a trip to the colander for a bath followed by the light touch of her fingers as she weeds out dead ones and ensures fresh saltwater reaches the rest.
When the time comes for a sale, Worm Girl reaches into a tray and counts out the right number. She places the worms — a half dozen or a dozen — in a white cardboard carton on a little bed of grass. The boxes, which used to be waxed on the inside, are made of recycled material that breaks down in water to reduce pollution. Even the ink that says "Tochterman's" is soy-based.
Although bloodworm bites are common among anglers, Tochterman claims she's only been nipped twice in 17 years. Blood squirts, however, are another matter.
"I only wear black and navy blue pants," she says, wiping blood from her cheek and looking for spatters on her white shirt. "Usually it's on my face. I look like I've been stabbed."
But all of that is just part of what makes Tochterman the Worm Girl. She also keeps an eye on the weather on the Chesapeake and in the Gulf of Maine. Too much rain here lowers demand. Too much rain there kills bloodworms, which cannot survive in fresh water. She has to consider the lunar cycles, when high tides cover the mud flats. And she deals with the occasional strike, when diggers hold out for an extra penny per worm.
Meanwhile, calls for worms come in all day, and orders are handwritten in an oversized loose-leaf notebook. Tochterman has about 400 steady customers a week, and she's got orders placed two months in advance. Woe to the angler who thinks he can just walk off the street on the start of a gorgeous summer weekend, grab a dozen and head for the door.
"I had to beg because I didn't call in," recalls Melvin Cox, a furnace operator at Sparrows Point.
Tochterman's sells other bait, such as night crawlers and squid. (The frozen bait is nestled in the freezer next to a pint of Haagen-Dazs vanilla). But it's the bloodworms that keep anglers coming back.
"They catch fish," says Rodney Parker, who manages a janitorial company. "Even all the way down to Crisfield, when they see these worms, they know they're from Tochterman's."