The Old Broke Rancher on Being the Worm King of Fergus County

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
Lemonade stand

The other day I saw three tiny girls sitting on the side of the road with a card table. On top of the table was a bright, sunny tablecloth, and on top of that, two pitchers: one yellow and one pink. Thinking that a little lemonade would cut the dust, I pulled over and walked up, counting the bills in my wallet.  

"How much for a cup," I asked. 

The littlest one, who must have been around six, answered immediately. 

"That'll be two dollars fer reg'lar lemonade and three dollars for pink. Pink costs more because it tastes better," she said. 

 I tried to keep my eyes from going too wide at what seemed to me to be truly outrageous prices.  Starbucks prices.

But then, I've always had a soft spot for greedy children, having been one in the past. But I knew that, better taste aside, three dollars was too rich for my blood - greedy children grow up to be cheap adults. I settled for the two-dollar cup, which was, just as she had warned me, somewhat mediocre.

Little boy fishing

My racket, when I was a little tyke, was something that tasted even worse, at least by human standards: worms. I sold a whole lot of them; a real conservative estimate would be millions. It should come as no surprise that Lewistown was a fishing town, and I packaged and sold them to all the sporting goods stores within a bike ride's distance for 25 cents a dozen. But the packages contained 16 nightcrawlers each in case one or two of expired. At any rate, I reasoned that if less was more, as I heard somewhere, more was even more.

Each week I also paid a couple of bucks to entrust a big washtub of them to the driver of a Greyhound bus, who delivered them to a guy in Great Falls who, in turn, repackaged and sold my worms to the much larger market in Great Falls, before cleaning and sending the tub back, also via Greyhound.

There is something about the microclimate of Central Montana when it rains in the summer that makes it so a worm harvester can, with a little talent and ambition, catch thousands between dusk and midnight. And best of all, they're free for the taking from front yards, city parks, and muddy ditches. I knew their hideouts well - they wriggled just under the surface in hedgerows and rose gardens, at the edges of well-tended vegetable plots, and in finely manicured lawns.

I actually raised them in the basement of my parents' house. Looking back on it now, they were very tolerant of my enterprise. In fact, when they noticed that I had enough pocket money to buy a malt or a cheeseburger now and then, I reckon they must have sighed a breath of relief, reasoning that I wouldn't bother them for change anymore.

Taxidermied trout

I was known as the Worm King, or at least that's what I tried to get my buddies to call me. They occasionally obliged, but I couldn't help but notice that when it came off their tongue it was spoken, not with the deference I felt I deserved, but with a touch of derision. Ah heck, I thought. They're just jealous. In fact, the only person who reliably called me the Worm King with a minimum of jest was Bob Brooks.

Bob Brooks owned one of the local sporting goods stores. He sold tackle, licenses, and cheap cigars to keep the mosquitoes at bay while you fished. In his shop, he had a taxidermist mount many of the locally caught trophy trouts taken from Spring Creek. They adorned the walls from the floor to the ceiling nearly all the way around his store, and the old-timers would gather there to cluck their tongues at them and say, "I had a few bigger'n that, but they got away."  

At the very least, it inspired the folks to go fishing, relaying the impression (well-deserved at that) that Spring Creek was full of lunker trout. That the wall of trophies might have helped to sell my bait was a pleasant bonus.  

Bob was also a publisher of the Pink Sheet, a three or four-page paper printed every Friday, that always had a feature article, some local advertisements, a few classifieds, and a good joke or two - you know that sort of thing. A few small towns still have something like it today.

I was not really an avid fisherman myself, but I did wet a line from time to time, mostly because Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer did, I guess. You might say I considered them my spiritual ancestors.

You see, I was also a member of a local Boy Scout chapter. I had one of those sashes that are worn over the khaki shirt, displaying the merit badges. I had lots of badges sewed on, mostly because I was pretty shrewd about picking the easiest merit badges to earn. That's how I ended up with, for instance, art, photography, farm mechanics, coin collecting, etc. But in order to attain the rank of Eagle Scout, you needed a fair number of said badges, and I needed a few more.  

(As an aside, I have not seen a boy scout in years, so it occurs to me that the closest analogy today would be the Wal-Mart super employee displaying their pins on a vest. This strikes me as a brilliant ploy indeed, give them a pin for their vest in lieu of a pay raise. But lest I start to sound like a liberal, I'll leave it at that.)

So scanning the Boy Scout handbook, I found I could get a merit badge for tying a fly of my own design and catching a fish on it. How hard could that be? And, if catching the fish proved too difficult, I'd simply switch to a worm, reel the thing in while no one is looking, and then claim I caught it with my fly.  

Boy scout merit badges

While it is easy to tie some rooster feathers and horse hairs to a hook in a reasonable approximation of a fly, it turns out not so easy to fool the trout. I had made several flies that looked like masterpieces to me, real achievements of aesthetics, but had failed utterly to lure a fish. I was just about to switch to a worm and cheat when the cosmic forces aligned perfectly. A hungry fish arrived at just the right time of day. I must have held my jaw at just the right angle, said the right number of Hail Mary's that week, that sort of thing. 

By sheer coincidence, a fish jumped very near where I had just cast, to my astonishment, the fish took my fly. I reeled him in and ran off to tell the scout leader, no doubt gloating as I did so. That's one more damned merit badge, I thought with satisfaction.

The only problem was that I feared that if I took it home, my mom would cook it and make me eat it, so I took the fish to donate to Bob Brooks, remembering that he had remarked previously on his liking for trout.

To this day, I gag a little when I think of eating fish. With all due respect to those who enjoy it, and with apologies to my heart, beef is what's for dinner, to paraphrase the old commercials. 

So I walked into his shop and slapped that trout down on the counter. "What do you think of that," I asked. "You want it?"

So the long of the story is Bob made a big deal out of my fish, and asked if he could photograph me and my trophy. I was shocked on Friday when my catch and I were the feature article of the week's Pink Sheet. The gist was that here was the "Worm King," well known for selling the finest worms in town, if not in all of Central Montana, displaying his proud catch.

And what was the last line?

Well, I'm afraid to admit that I made a liar of poor old Bob.

The last line of the story was "when I asked the young lad, AKA The Worm King himself, what he had used for bait to catch such a nice fish, he replied, 'with one of my own worms, of course!'"

Nightcrawlers

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

Leave a Comment Here

Marcia McEwen … (not verified) , Thu, 04/22/2021 - 14:11
Wow, Gary, this worm king thing is news to me! Congrats!
Mary (not verified) , Fri, 04/23/2021 - 12:42
Bonnie and I also sold night crawlers , your sister even got roped into hunting with me. Don't think she liked it. Our cousin, Don Vanek, used to wake us up at 6:30 to buy bait and there was always a little fight to see which one of us had to get up and go to the garage in our PJ's and slippers to dig some out of the large container.

You are truly the king!
Joni Schaper (not verified) , Thu, 04/29/2021 - 15:46
Loved this story! My brother, myself and my cousins used to hunt for Night Crawlers in my Aunt & Uncles' yard in Belt, MT. Wow, I can't tell you how many fish my family caught with those little worms....xoxo
Tammy Gardner (not verified) , Sat, 05/01/2021 - 14:22
I love a good fish story. Gary, yours makes me want to get some night crawlers and cast a line. However, Spring Creek is not out my front door anymore. Reading your story allowed me to view Lewistown exactly as I remember it. Thank you!
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