“If there is better tarpon fishing in the world, you’d have to show it to me.” – Key West fishing guide on the annual Keys worm hatch.
When discussing the Florida Key’s worm hatch, people become wary, suspicious. Even with close friends cred wavers. Stories recounting the phenomena fall short and, when accurate adjectives are found, they’re doubted, disbelieved.
The doubters aren’t short on ammo. Take the namesake worm for instance. The lowly Palolo’s size alone would preclude any serious thought of tarpon food. What does a hundred-fifty pound prehistoric creature see in a small red worm? Certainly not sufficient sustenance to gather by the thousands and feast like there’s no tomorrow.
Maybe it’s the taste that drives the frenzy. Perhaps, to the tarpon the worm is candy. The answer might lie in the nutritional value of the small meal. Some scientist propose the worm has an aphrodisiac effect on the fish who are at the start of their own spawning cycle. Or could it be the worms give the fish a narcotic buzz – gets them higher than a hippie in a helicopter.
Whatever the draw, on calm nights in late spring or early summer – with the right combination of tide and moon – the tarpon gather then rise to slurp the floating worms.
One guide attempting to deliver the scene said. “It’s like you threw two handfuls of M-80s in the water. Bucket size explosions, everywhere. Most times we fish the sound.”
Each spring massive numbers of tarpon pass through the Keys, returning from their winter haunts to summer and spawn in estuaries along Florida’s east and west coasts.
When one of the mile long schools speed north through the Yucatan channel, riding the three knot current, the only objective is to cross mid ocean. With no food and an abundance of predatory Hammerheads and Tigers, the tarpon move fast, gulping air constantly, their light blue Caribbean color shining. When seen at sea, the columns of rolling fish flash with the brilliance of a million mirrors.
Once back in the USA, the fish take on a greener hue, another chameleon of nature. Water temperatures to the north determine how long the travelers remain. During the season, which can be weeks or months, the fish filter out into the winding channels of the backcountry and patrol the beaches of the Key’s Atlantic side.
The fish sell themselves. In Key West they travel against the tide, up and down the harbor, cruising Mallory Square like silver signboards. Come catch us they tease. Tourist watch amazed, then lay their money down. Bets are, this international crowd of anglers will spend more dollars catching this leaping trophy than any other non-edible fish on the planet.
As good as Key’s migratory tarpon fishing is, the climax comes with the worm hatch. Night fishing reigns supreme. As word spreads of the hatch, the sea off the Keys harbors and channels are dotted with running lights and flashes from high beam spots. Shouts and splashes ring out from the darkness….the hatch is on.
Captain Travis Rolan, long time Key’s fishing guide notices a change in the daytime feeding habits of the fish as an indication of the hatch, which he claims can occur as early as late April. “Previously successful fly patterns suddenly don’t work.” He says. “When I see this behavior it tells me they have changed their focus. They have worms on the brain.”
Another sign of the hatch Rolan looks for is the absence of large fish in the backcountry, on the Florida Bay side of the Key’s island chain. “The juveniles will still be there. The large adults have left, headed to the Atlantic. They know what’s coming.”
Asked about the best hatch fishing excursion Rolan grins, “Jumped 22 on fly one evening, in about three hours.” Veterans of the hatch don’t spend a lot of time fighting fish. After a couple of jumps they break them off and go after another. “You don’t want to spend an hour married to one tarpon. Once the initial flurry of acrobatics is over, it’s time to hook another.”
“I take the voodoo out of the hatch equation.” States Captain Steve Lamp. Owner of Dream Catcher Charters. “I have it marked on my calendar.” Lamp is a fifth generation Floridian and has fished the Keys since childhood. Lamp too, sees the hatch coming by the tarpon’s behavior and the gathering of fish on the Atlantic.
“We’ve developed a special tube lure just for the hatch.” He says. “We use a small hook that seldom sinks into the hard boney mouth of the fish. We measure success by how many we put in the air, not to the boat.”
According to Dr. Dave Vaughan, leading scientist at Mote Marine’s Keys research center, the spawning habits of the worm are filled with wonders. “The male worms have oversized heads and eyes which are distinct from the females. The females release a segment of their bodies filled with eggs before sunset. This released segment is bioluminescent but it takes 45 minutes for the male worm’s eyes to adjust to the lowering light and spot the glowing target floating above them. The male then charges up and fertilizes the eggs.
Ask why the tarpon go wild over such a small morsel, Dr. Vaughan believes in the narcotic theory. “I think it’s like the tarpon are doing shots.”
Dr. Vaughan research reveals the hatch is ongoing from March through July with peak periods reaching a crescendo around the first part of June.
When fishing the hatch an imitator style jig or plug is most effective, next to a red fly. When asked about the intensity of the bite, I relate the following: “Just after sunset one evening, I made a long cast directed at an approaching school of worming fish. I jumped off a tarpon, another wacked the plug and missed and I hooked a third fish, all in one cast.”
So even if the exact day or week cannot be pinpointed for your bucket list tarpon excursion, that’s just another reason to spend more time in the Keys. Or, check with Capt. Steve Rogers co-host of the popular show, “In the Blue” who says. “I can tell when the worm hatch is on. There’s no Humus or Coconut milk left on the store shelves. The fly-guys have cleaned them out. ”