Madness with a Silver Lining
Worm hatches trigger spectacular tarpon frenzies in the Florida Keys.
By Alex Suescun

Tarpon rolling and sipping at the surface, like these, can be seen by the thousands during a worm hatch.

“Nine o’clock, 30 yards! Wait, got a closer pack coming to us at 10:30. You see ‘em?” When my question went unanswered, I peered down from the poling platform to the bow, where my wife stood, rod in one hand and fly in the other, but not exactly ready to cast. Instead of the tarpon incessantly feeding all around the boat, her focus was on the waves of tiny, auburn critters sparking the incredible melee.

This was the first time in my nearly three decades of tarpon fishing that I hit the fabled palolo worm hatch in the Florida Keys. Five-, 6- and the occasional 7-foot fish rolled in every direction, and I hardly contained my euphoria. But my Mary, an ecologist by education, couldn’t help marvel at the zillion 2-inch worms flooding the flats and prompting hordes of silver kings to sip at the surface like freshwater trout during an evening hatch.

The author sets the hook on a tarpon looking for a worm meal in the lower Florida Keys.

Luckily, the wolf packs of 50- to 150-pound threadfin herring gulping increasingly closer snapped her out of her fixation soon enough to lay out a cast ahead of a group feasting on the miniscule invertebrates to our starboard. Tucking the rod under her left arm like we practiced, she quickly took up the slack on the fly line and began stripping two-handed to match the straight-and-steady swimming of the worms.

Contact Sport

Strip, strip, strip, strip, slurp! A tarpon ate the faux palolo and made a forceful and immediate 90-degree turn away from the boat, unwittingly helping my wife come tight and set the hook. The fish went ballistic the instant it felt the poke of the sharp steel. And while Mary managed to expertly clear the line off the deck and get the tarpon on the reel without tangles, she wasn’t quite ready for the fish’s furious initial run and its unforeseen change of direction. The hook pulled out, but my wife had finally experienced the mayhem of hooking her first big poon.

Mary’s huge smile confirmed what I already suspected; the mesmerizing jumps, the gigantic holes the tarpon made in the water with every loud splashdown, and the overall display of athleticism from that 90-pounder had proven far more intoxicating to her than the sheer spectacle of the worms’ mass exodus.

After an arduous battle, a tired silver king of over 100 pounds finally comes to the boat.

After the sensory overload and undeniable adrenaline rush, she put the fly rod down and sat on the cushioned cooler in front of the console, then took a deep breath and a moment to steady her nerves. As I gave a big bear hug to the woman with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to share my passion for fly fishing for the past 13 years, unexpected cheers and applause from nearby boats made the moment extra special.

The Usual Suspects

Unlike many previous encounters with folks targeting tarpon or other glamour species in the same general location, the crews aboard the 15 or so skiffs that had come to Bahia Honda to fish the worm hatch that evening were not territorial but rather cordial. Some waited for their chances strategically anchored or staked out, others poled vigorously after rolling fish like we did, yet they all celebrated the successes of fellow anglers in the vicinity, and some even yelled encouragements after heartbreaking losses.

With the motor in gear, a tarpon is slowly towed to help it regain its strength for a healthy release.

I recognized heralded tarpon guru Andy Mill fishing with his son Nicky, and a few veteran guides from nearby Marathon and Big Pine Key were also in the mix. But no one tried any brazen jockeying for position or uttered harsh words to ward off others from encroaching too close for comfort. Everyone fished in harmony, and every few minutes someone’s rod bent into a deep arc, a fist was raised in victory, and an angry tarpon exploded out of the water, sometimes rocketing 6 to 8 feet into the air.

Hatch Fireworks

From frantic greyhounding to reckless cartwheeling and savage, gill-rattling headshakes, the acrobatics following every hookup differed as much as the striking colors and shapes lighting up the sky during a fireworks display. And like the astonishment and approval vocalized in unison by a Fourth of July crowd, contagious hooting and hollering could be heard from every boat in attendance.

It was evident that Mary and I were sharing the water and the moment with a small band of brothers and sisters who were there to simply enjoy the wondrous occurrence to the fullest, without the extreme competitiveness and jealousy that sometimes tarnishes such an experience.

Astute Observations

After poling a safe distance from the nearest boats, I took my turn at the bow and resorted to electric power for propulsion. As silent as trolling motors appear to be, they still spook tarpon, especially in clear water no more than 6 feet deep. So I chose to use mine sparingly and only to get Tarpon Blues, our East Cape Vantage skiff, in the path of pods feeding in our general direction. The tactic worked and, by the time the sun hid completely behind the western horizon, we’d put a total of 12 poons in the air, half of which likely exceeded the 100-pound mark.

Between shots, my wife dip-netted a few palolos for closer inspection, which promptly revealed the worms are equipped with tiny paddlelike appendages along both sides that propel them at a considerable clip without any wiggling necessary. In reality, what anglers and fish see during a hatch is merely the tail section bearing the reproductive cells of a 12- to 16-inch-long worm. That 2-inch section breaks off and leaves the protection of the coral and limestone bottom to join countless others swimming out toward the reef to release the eggs and sperm.

Animal Attraction

Tarpon’s affinity for palolos rises well beyond the species’ predilection for all other types of forage. In fact, many believe the worms are some sort of silver-king aphrodisiac, and that would explain the punch-drunk attitude numerous fish exhibit immediately after a hatch. Whatever the reason for the attraction, it is strong enough to make tarpon travel hundreds of miles, frequently refusing live crabs and baitfish along the way, to stage in deep channels and basins in immediate proximity to top worm-producing hotspots in preparation for the annual hatches.

Tiny paddlelike appendages along both sides propel Palolo worms in the water, with no wiggling necessary.

Interestingly, large hammerhead and bull sharks, known to regularly prowl such areas in hopes of sinking their teeth into a tarpon, are usually absent during the worm hatches. You never see the apex predators claim a hooked fish then. It’s as if they give poons a couple of days off to let their guard down and worry only about making the most of the festivities.

Limited Release

Palolo hatches, which in the Keys occur only in The Marquesas, oceanside Key West, Bahia Honda, Seven Mile Bridge, Craig Key and a couple more places for a brief span of two to five evenings, happen always between late May and mid June, coinciding with a late-afternoon or early-evening outgoing tide during either the full or new moon period. Inclement weather, however, sometimes puts the brakes on, bringing a hatch to an abrupt and early ending or simply interrupting it for a day or two.

I vividly recall the angst that overtook me upon leaving a certain waterfront restaurant —where I’d just finished dining with my wife—when we walked past the lighted dock and saw palolo worms darting in the glow. The hatch I thought had ended two days earlier was back in full force, and I’d wasted the precious few hours of likely phenomenal tarpon fishing before dusk scouting potential alternate spots in the backcountry.

No Guarantees

I learned long ago that Mother Nature can be unpredictable. She keeps her own schedules and doesn’t send out memos or email reminders, not even for events of great importance to anglers, like a palolo worm hatch. The knowledge acquired by hitting the hatch that first time didn’t make it easier to forecast the next one with any precision. But giving myself an extended window of opportunity let me be on the water for the duration of the hatch and the amazing tarpon bite it triggered three of the following four years.

Many Palolo worm imitations —both soft and rigid— will do the trick, as long as the retrieve mimics the real deal.

As insane as the action can be when the palolo worms decide it’s time to procreate, hooking up is never a given. If you find yourself in the right place at the right time, you’ll get more shots at silver kings actively feeding than you ever thought possible. But even the most faithful reproduction of the diminutive, prevalent prey has just a small chance of being intercepted by a hungry tarpon amid the countless real-life options available. Nevertheless, you can increase your odds by specifically targeting approaching fish instead of blind casting, landing your fly softly to avoid spooking the fish, and presenting it sufficiently close and in front so the tarpon can see your offering with both eyes. It also makes a big difference to keep your palolo imitation near the surface, moving in the same direction and pace as the actual worms.

Leave It to The Pros

If you’re not much of a do-it-yourselfer or are constrained by your geographical location or the lack of a boat or time off, consider booking one of the many superb flats guides in the Florida Keys. They won’t guarantee you’ll fish during a hatch but can take much of the guesswork out of the equation and come close. And whether or not you hit the palolo party with your chosen captain, he’ll certainly put you on tarpon and shorten your learning curve.

The Chili Pepper fly is an effective option for South Florida tarpon, especially during or near a worm hatch.

Of course, there are several destinations that promise seasoned guides and exceptional tarpon opportunities without needing a rare worm hatch to fire up the action. For instance, Belize harbors a healthy, year-round population of silver kings and enjoys a major influx of large, migratory fish during the summer months. Mexico’s Yucatan benefits from a similar pilgrimage that coincides with the tarpon run in the Florida Keys. The rest of year it offers days with double-digit shots at juveniles, perfect for fly anglers looking to hone the required skills to tangle with the adults of the species.

A palolo worm casts a small wake as it glides across the surface.   Photo by Pat Ford

Alex Suescun

Alex grew up chasing bonefish, redfish, snook, tarpon, permit and other saltwater species in South Florida’s fabled waters and then broadened his pursuit of gamefish to the Caribbean, and Central and South America. His career in sportfishing began in 1991 as Assistant Editor of Saltwater Fly Fishing magazine, working with the likes of Lefty Kreh, Flip Pallot, Stu Apte, Chico Fernandez, Nick Curcione and Ed Jaworowski. He later hosted and produced his own TV fishing show, Tarpon Bay Tales, for 11 seasons. And after an 8-year stint as Executive Editor of Salt Water Sportsman, Alex joined the team at Fly Fishing International.