07/26/13 5:00pm
07/26/2013 5:00 PM

COURTESY PHOTO | Jamesport Bait & Tackle owner Bill Czech holds one of the few sandworms he can offer to fishermen.

Looking forward to a day of fishing, Spiro Beletsis of East Marion visited his local bait and tackle shop to pick up a few dozen worms.

After leaving empty-handed, he moved on to two other area bait shops.

“All three of them didn’t have worms,” Mr. Beletsis said.

There has been a shortage of worms since the July 4 weekend, North Fork bait shop owner say, leaving fishermen, particularly surfcasters, without the bait they prefer.

When hooked, the slimy creature known as the sandworm gives off a juicy brew that finfish — like porgies and striped bass — cannot resist, said Glen Valentine of Regal Marine Products, a bait distributor that supplies some local shops.

“It hurts business because some people don’t how to fish with anything else,” said Bill Czech of Jamesport Bait and Tackle in Mattituck.

“I can order 14 boxes, and I get delivered three boxes” of about 125 worms each, he said. “I usually put a two dozen maximum [limit on sales per customer].”

WeGo Bait and Tackle in Southold hasn’t had sandworms in stock for over a week, said Steven, the shop’s owner. He said he sent close to 100 customers away worm-less in recent days.

Capt. Dave Brennan, owner of the Peconic Star fleet in Greenport, said the shortage has had an effect on fishing.

While he said he usually relies on other types of bait for porgy and striped bass fishing “sometimes they are very critical to put a catch together. You need worms, and that’s the time I miss them. I am not able to carry them this year,” he said.

Sandworms are harvested from the shores of Maine and distributed nationwide, Mr. Valentine said.

He said his distribution company, which works out of Huntington Station, is receiving only about 15 percent of what is demanded by area bait shops.

In Maine there are a lot of mud flats where the worms burrow into the sand. When tides go out the flats are exposed, giving more of an opportunity to gather worms, he said.

“Right now the tides are not great,” he said, adding that the hot temperatures send worms deeper in the ground.

He said summer weather and tides are only partly to blame, though, as the worms have been overharvested for years.

“It’s getting worse every year because they are over-dug,” Mr. Valentine said. “There is very little conservation in Maine.”

To get any kind of quantity, harvesters are digging them kind of small, at about 2 to 5 inches. “Years ago they were much bigger, [about 7 to 8 inches] you don’t see them that size anymore,” he said.

“The public needs to understand that it is a problem. It’s going to get worse and worse every year,” Mr. Valentine said.

Until more worms can be unearthed, there are alternatives fisherman can use as bait, shop owners said.

“You can improvise and use clam or squid,” Mr. Czech said. “But for some reason the worms work better.”

cmiller@timesreview.com