Worm Hatch – Northeast – Striped Bass

In contrast to most perennial opportunities that saltwater anglers anticipate each season, cinder worm events remain somewhat cloaked in mystery. But I believe the unpredictability of the worm event is the magnet that fuels its annual cult-like pursuit—sort of like a gamblers addiction.


Worm hatches” draw attention from fly-rodders from all walks of the sport. They are enormously appealing to freshwater anglers because of the similarity to dry fly hatches adored by trout fishers; for many of these folks, worm events are the only saltwater fishing they consider all season. But the worms interest salty fly-rodders as well—lots of them.


School fish under 30 inches can become maddeningly difficult in the midst of a worm hatch, challenging even the veterans. But despite there being no guarantee the event will even unfold as anticipated on any given day, worm hatches consistently draw daily gatherings of like-minded anglers simply for the camaraderie of fishing with on-the-water friends.


Similar to dry fly fishing, these are entirely visual events. The riveting nature of technical fly casting to surface-feeding gamefish cannot be overstated. Northeast worm events attract attention from many game species, including striped bass, bluefish, and hickory shad, and they represent a premium angling opportunity for fly-fishers.





Cinder Worm Spawning Dynamics

Lets clarify a common misunderstanding up front: The cinder worm event is a spawn, not a hatch. The label worm hatch” is a misnomer likely derived from its similarity to insect hatches common in fresh water. Despite the unpredictable nature of the worm event, there are environmental and meteorological factors that clearly influence cinder worm spawning. From an angling perspective, the overall quality of the event depends on two elements: the timing and intensity of the spawn and the arrival and number of migratory gamefish. Some years, the worms conduct their mating ritual entirely ahead of the migratory stripers arrival, with little interference from them.


Cinder worms are not commercially important, so theres relatively little scientific information on their life cycle and habits. But heres what we know based on years of anecdotal observation. Like all living creatures, they have preferred habitats and need particular environmental conditions to flourish. In general, they prefer clean, relatively shallow (10 feet or less), protected coastal waters, such as quiescent harbors, bays, salt ponds, estuaries, and along the flanks of slow-moving coastal rivers. They appear to prefer full ocean salinity, rather than brackish environments, and they like soft, fertile sediments such as mud and silt, opposed to coarse, granular strata like sands and gravels. Similar to freshwater insect hatches associated with portions of distinct rivers, certain inshore locations sport renowned cinder worm populations. Fly anglers know them well: Rhode Islands salt ponds, the rivers and bays along the Connecticut shoreline, the many salt ponds and creeks associated with Massachusettss Cape Cod and Islands, many of Long Islands bays and estuaries, and certain of Maines coastal rivers and bays.


So what ignites the spawn? As with all cold-blooded marine life, its principally water temperature. Conditions for worm procreation are more delicate than with warm-blooded animals that can regulate their body temperatures. With sedimentary creatures such as worms, favorable spawning conditions become even more complex—the bottom strata within which the worms reside must also attain a suitable temperature.





What influences temperatures within the cinder worms habitat? The sun? The moon? Is it ambient water and tidal flow? To some extent, its all of these. Theres a widely held notion that worm spawning is governed by moon phase—the full moon, in particular. The full and new moon phases are associated with larger tides that result in greater tidal flow and exaggerated water levels (higher highs and lower lows), influencing both sediment and water temperatures. For example, extra-low tides enhance sediment warming, especially when occurring on sunny days. Conversely, increased water levels and tide flow may retard sediment and water warming, especially during cool, overcast periods. Water column and sediment temperatures, however, are overwhelmingly governed by solar radiation and daily weather.


Based on years of observation, the magic conditions that ignite and sustain worm spawning appear to be when sediments and waters approach 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Worms begin to appear with sediment temperatures in the upper 50s, with associated surface water a couple of degrees warmer. With springtime solar radiation increasing daily, water temperatures accelerate across the 60-degree mark during the event, generally ending up in the low 60s by the end of the spawn.


Despite these observations, the belief in full moon magic persists. Consider that annual cinder worm spawning can occur over as little as one week, or it may stretch as long as three weeks, depending on prevailing weather. Even with a week-long event, theres a 25 percent chance the full moon will occur sometime during the spawn. The longer the event persists, the more likely it will coincide with the full moon at some point. Its wild when it does overlap with the peak of the worms ritual—a rising evening moon illuminating a surreal swarm of frenzied worms dimpling the surface adds immensely to the already eerie experience. I have had stellar worm fishing through the new moon, the full moon, and during both quarter-moon phases.





After the event has seasonally commenced, theres no guarantee of daily consistency. Day-to-day weather plays a huge role in the events intensity and progression. Anything that disrupts gradual warming into the low 60s will slow or even shut down the spawn. Cold fronts, heavy rains, and cool weather out of the east have the potential to derail the event for a day or two. Ideal spawning conditions do not unfold concurrently throughout a given worm location with uniformity. Its important to understand that the action moves about an estuary or salt pond throughout the event, materializing in certain areas as suitable conditions prevail, then subsiding and commencing elsewhere in the pond or bay, as prime spawning conditions are attained in those areas.



Worm spawning has a beginning, a middle, and an end—both daily and throughout the seasonal event. It generally starts out slowly with a few worms surfacing here and there and intensifies to a crescendo, and then gradually subsides to its conclusion. At the start of the seasonal event, the first few days often have weak worm showings. The same is true from the daily perspective—the early stages are generally sparse with worm activity and then build in intensity before declining to a trickle. At its peak, the number of worms per square foot of water surface can be staggering. This worm density heavily impacts the quality of fishing and your angling strategy.



While most locations present worm spawns commencing in the evening with action continuing well into darkness, other areas offer late afternoon activity that runs until the sun goes down before dwindling to a stop—another example of the mystery associated with these nebulous events. Local knowledge is invaluable when fishing unfamiliar waters; tribal insight is readily available through online resources and area tackle shops.



Unique Event, Unique Approach

As is often the case with small prey, sheer numbers and density can render a match-the-hatch approach ineffective. We see this during intense freshwater hatches and elsewhere in salt water when vast schools of small bait, such as anchovies or juvenile menhaden, are corralled and blitzed by gamefish. The essential problem with all of these situations is the same—getting your fly noticed among throngs of naturals. For worm swarms, simple strategies can overcome this problem.



First, success in worm events hinges on relative numbers rather than absolute quantity of prey. If there were 1,000 worms available and one feeding striped bass, our odds of catching it would be much lower than in a scenario of 1,000 worms with 1,000 stripers feeding on them. This example is exaggerated, but it illuminates the point: Many anglers do well early and late in worm events, both daily and seasonally, when worm numbers are low and their ratio to  gamefish numbers is also relatively low. The deck becomes stacked in the anglers favor. At the event’s onset and conclusion, when there are hungry fish and relatively few worms to go around, your fly is much more likely to be taken.



Stripers have extremely good vision, and when pursuing easy-to-capture prey like worms, they can take their time and be careful and selective. During the latter portions of afternoon hatches and throughout evening hatches, however, the fish often take flies more readily and appear to be less leader shy. I believe this is simply because they dont see hooks and leaders as clearly in low-light conditions, making these periods more productive.





Angling Tactics

Worm events can be challenging, but with common sense tactics tailored to this event—and attention to detail—you will succeed. It’s most important to know that no one kills it every time in worm events. Everyone has their share of good days and bad days, with plenty of average outings in between.


For tackle, 7- and 8-weight rods are ideal for the small flies and light winds commonly encountered during the worm spawn. And theyre a lot of fun when playing the 20- to 30-inch stripers typically encountered. There may be larger bass in the mix, but there are far fewer of them, and theyre statistically hooked much less often. Floating lines are standard, along with light 8- to 12-pound-test monofilament leaders, which supports presenting tiny, lightweight flies to fish sipping naturals within the surface film. Light leaders enable more lifelike fly movement with delicate worm patterns. Fluorocarbon is an option, but I believe its unnecessary during low-light conditions—it also sinks, while mono floats. I often employ a two-fly rig (fishing two flies on a leader) as its a simple way to increase your flys presence in the worm swarm, effectively putting another good card in your hand.


Feeding is not random. By paying close attention to the surface boils, anglers can determine where small schools of stripers are slurping worms and the direction theyre moving. This enables you to position yourself within presentation range of where the fish have been surfacing, as well as anticipate where to present your fly when they reveal themselves within range. Gauging the path of the fish and leading them with your cast is usually more successful than randomly tossing at surface boils that have already occurred; you want to enable the fish to spot your fly ahead of them and swim to it naturally. With all the worms in the water, getting takes remains a game of percentages, regardless of the fly you are fishing. Persistently presenting your fly ahead of roving packs of fish—or within large clusters of feeders—increases your odds. Eventually one will mistake your fly for the real thing and take it.


When a fish does take your fly, resist giving a hard strip set. Worms are easy prey to capture, and the bass are barely sipping them. Instead, a slow draw coupled with a modest rod lift—a trout set”—will seal the deal better than yanking the fly away from a casually feeding fish.





Flies for Worm Fishing

Many cinder worm flies have been developed. Every worm aficionado, it seems, has a unique pattern or two to their credit. It’s impossible to present them all in a single article, but by examining key pattern attributes, anglers can develop (or purchase) flies to establish their own favorites that theyll fish with confidence.


I can’t overstate how fickle striped bass can become regarding what flies theyll take—or not—on a given day. In general, flies that roughly match the length of the prevailing worms are a great starting point. During an evenings fishing, worms may range from 1 inch to more than 3 inches. I generally shoot for the middle—2 to 3 inches. Light, delicate patterns that ride high in the water often perform well. If they have inherent wormlike movement, thats even better. Keep in mind just how fragile the naturals are; scoop one off the surface by hand and youll see (cinder worms will not nip you, as other worm species can).


As for color, most proven patterns are in the pink-red-orange color band, but rust, brown, olive, and even white will take fish. I sense that the silhouette of the pattern against the waters surface in the evening, and its movement, are most important to fooling fish. Dark (usually black) highlights are common at the tips of cinder worms and their imitations, but not all worms display these attributes, and Im uncertain how vital they are to a patterns success. Closed-cell foam, popular with freshwater dry flies, can be highly effective in the composition of a worm imitation. Flies using this material ride on the surface film, creating an extremely enticing wake during the retrieve (credit this to Captain Bob Hines, a venerable Rhode Island worm hatch guide). Though cinder worms are not flashy, many reliable patterns do include delicate flash material, perhaps enhancing visibility to draw more attention. One worm pattern attribute I consider vital is a small, light-wire hook. Such hooks are sufficient to secure even a 10-pound striper, and with a sporting touch, these bass may be effectively landed with the 7- and 8-weight tackle described earlier. I prefer size-4 or even size-6 Daiichi or Tiemco hooks, and Ive taken plenty of fish using flies dressed on size-4 or -6 bronze freshwater streamer hooks. Bronze hooks rust easily and have relatively short lives, but they make for delicate flies that ride high in the water and appear quite wormlike. Ill take more hookups over durability anytime.


Until We Meet Again

When the cinder worm spawn is over, thats it for the season. It will not recur weeks or months down the road. Toward the end of the event, waters that were alive with bizarre worm perpetuation and impressive predation gradually go silent—until the cycle repeats itself the following spring, when those same waters again come alive with cinder worms and striped bass, magnetically drawing a cadre of fly-fishers, many of whom reunite but once a year for this special event.



by Alan Caolo




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