Little Rhody's Wild Worm Hatch

Little Rhody's Wild Worm Hatch

May brings full-moon madness

  • By: Bob Hines
  • Photography by: John Halnon
"John! 11:00 o'clock!" I shouted from the poling platform. I glanced over at my friend, John Halnon, and noticed that he had already keyed in on the cruising fish I had pointed out. He stood in the ready position on the casting platform of my flats boat as the dorsal and tail fins of these large feeding fish cut through the glasslike water. John made a picture-perfect cast of 60 to 70 feet. "Strip John, one's following it; strip, keep stripping; he turned off, keep stripping; got another one on it; strip; pause; strip.Just then the water seemed to explode as the fish took the fly and John was into his backing in seconds. After a lengthy battle the fish was in the boat, photographed and released. The fish John landed was 31 inches long. This might sound like tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys or bonefishing in the Bahamas, right? But it's actually shallow-water sight-fishing for stripers during the exciting cinder worm hatch in Rhode Island's estuaries. These marine worms, commonly called cinder worms, are actually sand worms, genus Nereis, and have a long, flat-segmented body and a pair of paddles on each segment. Worms will vary in size from as small as three-quarters of an inch to as large as four inches. Coloration varies from pure white or pale yellow to a dark maroon or red with an orange-brown hue. As fly fishers and fly tiers, we know that size and color are both important, but in this case neither qualifies as the most important factor. That, of course, would be movement. During the "hatch," the female worms will circle, wiggle and swim with the males as they release clouds of eggs and sperm into the water; both sexes die after spawning. From a distance, swarming worms look like a rain shower as they dimple the surface, push water up and create small wakes. All of the birds in the estuary take part in the cinder worm bounty-seagulls, terns, cormorants and even mute swans get caught up in the excitement. In fact, these birds are a visual clue to fly fishers as to where the worms are spawning. And where you find the worms you will also find the stripers that key in on this helpless prey. Fly fishers experience exciting visual takes while casting to these large predators. Historically, the worm hatch begins the week of the full moon in May, though the worms will continue to swarm well into June, depending on the weather. Certain estuaries will experience worms before others and certain coves within these estuaries will produce hatches earlier than others. The fly fisher will find the best opportunities to fish the worm hatch in the estuaries of Ninigret Pond and Quonochontaug Pond, near Charlestown, Rhode Island. I have found that warm, sunny days often trigger an emergence of worms that evening. However, there have been many cloudy, rainy afternoons when I thought there would be few worms on the water and, to my amazement, the coves were alive with this writhing bait. This rainy-day action usually occurs later in May or in June, when the water has warmed up. I have also experienced prolific midday hatches. Typically, however, most estuaries will contain heavier concentrations of worms towards dusk and well into darkness. Having fished the worm hatch for the past 10 seasons, I can best describe it as being as addictive and frustrating as Atlantic salmon fishing. Every year I catch some of the largest stripers of the season using worm patterns in shallow water. Each outing, however, can be significantly different from the previous. For example, on certain afternoons I have caught as many as 20 to 25 stripers on several different flies. When this happens, it provides a great opportunity to experiment with new patterns. Then, on a return trip to the same location under the same conditions, I am sometimes lucky to catch just two or three fish. This is why I find the worm hatch to be so challenging, frustrating and rewarding. I have friends, on the other hand, who want no part of the worm hatch because of how difficult it can sometimes be. The equipment I recommend is a 9-foot rod loaded with an 8- or 9-weight floating line and 150 to 200 yards of 30-pound-test backing. I prefer a two-fly rig in which the leader runs six feet to the lead fly, with an additional three feet of leader to the tail fly. The total length of the leader is approximately nine feet long. Catching large stripers on floating lines and relatively small flies during the worm hatch is a refreshing change from the usual striper tactics involving sinking lines and big, weighted flies. Using two flies increases your odds when casting over these selectively feeding fish. On occasion, however, when everything is going right, I will cut off the dropper fly, thereby avoiding the risk of losing a large fish due to hooking two fish at the same time. Yes, I have had instances when I hooked a large bass on the dropper and, while fighting the first fish, had another fish take the lead fly. Two fish pulling in different directions means that one will probably break off-and it's usually the larger fish. I use 20-pound-test mono for my leaders; stripers are not leader shy while feeding vigorously on the swarming worms. Fly selection, as with any other type of fly-fishing, is personal, and every angler has a favorite pattern they swear by. Over the years I have taken stripers on several different patterns, some as simple as a length of pink or white chenille on a hook with a red marabou tail. However, two worm patterns that have consistently produced over the years are Gene's Worm Fly, tied by my friend and fishing partner, Gene Matteson, and the Hines Foam-Tail Worm tied by yours truly. Both of these patterns were developed over several years of experimentation. Trial-and-error is the name of the game when constructing the best possible imitation to match the unique characteristics of the natural bait. In the water, these worms "light up" in shades of red, white, yellow and green. But out of the water and in the hand, the worms turn a drab brown color. When fish are cruising just below the surface, try to determine the direction they are feeding, lead them with an accurate cast and place the fly in the fish's window of view. Several times I have witnessed large bass cruising very slowly just below the surface, with dorsal and tail fins out of the water and mouths wide open, sucking in the worms. It is a sight that will certainly quicken the pulse and make your heart race. Whether you catch fish or not, the cinder worm hatch is something every fly fisher should experience during the start of the striper season. Contact Bob Hines at 401-949-5021; or visit his Web site www.flyfishri.com. Hines Foam-Tail Worm How to: Hook: Stainless C705D Mustad Signature Series size 4 or 6 Thread: Fine mono Body: Closed cellular foam overwrapped with crystal chenille Head: Black ostrich herl Tie in the mono thread behind the hook eye and wrap back to the hook point. Tie on a 3- to 4-inch piece of red or orange foam approximately 5/8-inch wide and extending about an inch past the bend to create the tail. Lay the remaining foam on top of the hook shank and wrap the thread forward over the foam to create a buoyant under-body. Tie off behind the eye and leave remaining foam protruding forward. Wrap the thread back to where the tail begins and tie in a piece of red or orange crystal chenille. Wrap the crystal chenille forward over the foam body and tie off at the same point where the foam was tied down. At this point, tie in two pieces of black ostrich herl and wrap together just behind the hook eye to form the dark head. Bring the mono thread forward and under remaining foam. Make a few wraps in front, forcing the foam to stand up, and tie off. Snip the remaining foam to 5/8-inch long. This will create a waking bill. Note: The foam tail and forward bill will create subtle wakes when retrieved, just like the naturals. Gene's Worm Fly How to: Hook: Mustad 36890 salmon hook, size 6 or 8 Thread: 6/0 black tying thread Body: Flame orange Glo Bug yarn Wing: Yellow over olive bucktail Head: Black ostrich herl Tie in thread behind the hook eye and wrap back until even with the hook point. Cut a 4- to 5-inch piece of Glo Bug yarn and separate into thirds, creating bodies for three flies. Tie in the Glo Bug yarn at the bend of the hook and wrap the thread forward to 1/4-inch from the eye. Wrap the Glo Bug yarn forward over the hook shank to form the body and tie off. Add a small portion of olive bucktail at the point where the forward body ends. The bucktail should extend about 1/2-inch past the bend of the hook. Repeat this step with the yellow bucktail added over the olive, forming a wing. In front of the wing add two pieces of ostrich herl and wrap together toward the eye to form the head. Whip finish and add head cement if desired. Tips Some of the following personal experiences may assist you when fly-fishing for stripers during the worm hatch: Whenever possible, fish from a boat, canoe or kayak if conditions allow. This will enable you to follow the fish feeding in different areas of the ponds. Remember that certain areas will experience a more prolific hatch than others based on water temperature, depth and wind direction. Early in the season when the worms are first showing, the water is in the upper 40's and approaching 50 degrees. The worms will first spawn in warm, shallow water, then spread out to deeper areas as the season progresses and the water warms. When pursuing large stripers, you may sometimes want to move to areas where fewer worms are swarming. As will sometimes happen during a prolific mayfly hatch, too many naturals on the water can make it difficult to attract fish with your imitation. Pay attention to the size of the swirls and boils. There will be no mistake when detecting a large bass taking a worm. I have literally been splashed in my boat by large stripers attacking worms within a few feet of me. Smaller rise forms will usually indicate smaller schoolie stripers, or the abundant hickory shad, feeding on the worms. These fish are also fun on a fly rod and are sometimes a great substitute when the larger bass are very selective. However, you usually find the larger fish feeding right alongside the others. Fish the edges of the concentrated hatch and, if there is tidal movement or current, be aware of individual fish establishing feeding lanes and taking the worms as they drift by. I've caught some of my largest bass fishing in this type of situation. Pay strict attention to where the fish are taking and cast well across the current on a 45-degree angle, then let the fly swing into the feeding fish. If they do not take on the drift, begin your retrieve and cast again. Remember that fish will not chase the bait as long it's being funneled to them. If you find yourself hooking floating eelgrass or seaweed, move immediately. The objective is a long cast with a clean retrieve that allows the fly to swim as naturally as possible. When casting to several rising fish I suggest that you cast well beyond the feeding fish and retrieve through them as opposed to concentrating on the individual rises. Try to determine the fish's rhythm and direction of feeding whenever possible. Your retrieve should be in short, jerky four- to six-inch strips with a short pause in between strips at varied speeds. If that doesn't work, try a slower two-handed retrieve. This does work well at times-but be ready when the fish hits. He may rip the rod right out from under your arm!