“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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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