It's one thing to be 81 years old and still working seven days a week to get worms to Washington's worm-needy, and certainly anyone who knows him and his mission admires Joe Bush for his consistency.

But what about those days when a fellow wakes up with that washed-out feeling after a night battling a raging stomach disorder? Couldn't Bush call in sick?

Well, first there's nobody to call because Bush Worms is Joe Bush. And then there are all those people getting up at 4 and 5 a.m. to stop before dawn at Bush's hole-in-the-wall behind the Merit station on Florida Avenue NE to buy night crawlers and bloodworms that smell of Canada dew and sweet low tide in Maine. They depend on him.

There are the winos and hopheads who need handouts and the kids who get a piece of candy, and the shipment of 8,000 worms coming in from Boston on the 9:44 at National Airport. Who's going to pick them up? And 500 worms to drop off at Fletcher's Boat House on the way home. What should Fletcher do, go dig his own?

"I gotta come in," says Bush. "We got a season here."

He is a generous, declining bear of a white-haired man who 30 years ago quit as a newspaper printer and started supplying the bait Washingtonians need to pursue spot, perch, hardheads, trout, catfish, bass and, in better days, rockfish. His daily business, April to November, is worms. He doesn't advertise, explaining, "I sell better bait here, cheaper. They can find me."

And they do, from 4 a.m. when he arrives at his beat-up shop in a beat-down alley until he leaves for the airport at 10 in his beat-up Chevette. And they're waiting when he returns. They climb out of cabs and Buicks and postal trucks to demand 8, 10, 15 or 20 dozen bloodworms because the spot and trout are hitting at Deal Island or Solomons.

Bush is the worm king, according to Ray Fletcher at Fletcher's Boat House, where the regulars stage a Bush party when the season slows.

"Actually, I think last year we made him worm emperor," said Fletcher.

"Yeah, maybe they did but I couldn't tell you," said Bush, who retains the tough talk of his youth.

He hit on worms when he went fishing in Chesapeake Beach but had to sit around while the captain sought bait. "I asked him if I got bait, would he buy it," said Bush. "He said, 'I'll take all you can get.' "

A couple of days later Bush took his wife for a ride. To Maine.

A dingy photo of the tidal flats of Wiscasset hangs on the dingy wall of Bush's shop. He found a supplier there and still sells Wiscasset worms. "I sell as many as they send," he said, but he never knows how many it will be. "I don't even ask anymore. It's intruding. I call them. I'm very subtle. I say, 'These are very nice worms. Could you send a little more?' "

The bloodworms come in cartons, packed in seaweed. They are hand-dug at low tide every day, packed that night and shipped the next morning. The high-spirited worms, the weeds, the little crabs and incidental sea life smell fresh and wild against the dirt and smog of Florida Avenue.

"Yeah, but leave 'em around three days and you'll be looking for the exit," said Bush.

Spot and trout are hungry for bloodworms on the Bay these days and the catfish and bass want night crawlers on the river. The math is easy enough. Bloodworms are $2 a dozen, night crawlers $1.

Bush breaks open the cartons and stands under a bare light bulb, pulling out worms and packing them in coffee cups. His stubby fingers poke the worms home, rapid-fire.

Customers come to the door. "Bush," they call. "Where's Pops?"

Business is a blur. It's nothing for a buyer to walk off with $40 worth of worms.

By noon quitting time, Bush is bushed. "How many people 81 years old move like me?" he wonders. "Something is radically wrong."

He will sleep in the afternoon. "I move around like a kid all day, then I go home and sag in the door. My wife shakes her head. I'm talking to her with the paper in my hand, all of a sudden the paper's on the floor and I'm asleep in the chair."