Mystique, mayhem, and the palolo worm hatch
Late May, Florida Keys. Four in the afternoon. Skiffs buzz back to docks with tired guides and sun-drunk clients. Thoughts of missed shots and cold beer. A dying easterly rustles palm fronds; thunderheads lurk like massive silver anvils. Oceanside, brown bonefish flats sport crisscrossing prop scars. Between the flats flow deep, aquamarine channels.
Channel Two Bridge, Islamorada, 4:30 p.m. Anglers dangle shrimp from the walking bridge, hoping for hogfish, or snapper. Lines straight down—high tide, nothing doing. Nearby, a guide boat-soaking mullet hooks a nurse shark. The guide unclips from an orange anchor ball and lazily gives chase, his client happy for something to pull on.
Channel Five Bridge, connecting Craig Key to Long Key, 5p.m. The tide begins to drop: clumps of sargassum smuggle crabs and tiny camouflaged shrimps. Startled needlefish flash blue-green iridescence. A loggerhead with barnacled shell takes a breath of air, then dives. At the bottom of the channel, lead sinkers, coral fragments, lost anchors. A goliath grouper hovers like a submersible. Spiny lobsters hide in the arches of a cinder block.
A skiff idles through the bridge stanchions, bayside to ocean. It’s one of the guide skiffs from the docks; the guide has traded client for guide-fishing-buddy. It’s the height of tarpon season: they could both use a shave, a day off, a competent marriage counselor. But they wouldn’t miss this, not for anything.
They lean over gunwales, peering into the channel as if they’ve dropped something valuable. They search intently, back and forth across the current that is flushing, now—really kicking—dumping Florida Bay. They know they’re a little early. They comment on the perfect weather, light winds, sultry; it should happen tonight. They idle farther out toward the ocean, hugging the channel edge where the current slows. The bridge shrinks behind them. An hour passes. Still they search.
They don’t see the first, or second, or any of the first few dozens. Viewed from above, the worms resemble red-olive sticks, two, maybe three inches long. They zip beneath the surface like meteorites through a turquoise sky. Their swimming is constant, but not fast enough.
A tarpon boils. It’s a subtle take, as a river rainbow might dispatch a drowned mayfly. One of the guides recognizes the disturbance and drops anchor. The anchor finds purchase and within minutes their skiff is surrounded: the channel roils with feeding tarpon.
Worms—hundreds of them, now—swim the gauntlet to the sea. Where are they headed, and for what? The guides don’t give it a thought. They pull out fly rods, excitable as children. Eleven-weights, floating line, #1 or 1/0 flies with red tails and olive heads. They peel line and begin to cast.
One of them strip-sets a large mangrove snapper, which is promptly tossed in the cooler. The two can’t see the mayhem beneath, but they sense it: mixed in with tarpon and snapper are jack crevalle, bonefish, juvenile grouper, permit, all feeding on worms. They keep casting. Their worm flies are lost among the naturals. Finally, the guide on the bow comes tight: a large tarpon somersaults, crashes, then bursts toward the ocean. His buddy lets out a whoop of approval. Fly line slices through the channel; backing burns the guide’s fingers. He cups the spool and breaks off, winds in and searches for a new fly. His buddy hooks up, a smaller version, one they might land from the anchored skiff, but his hook falls out on the second jump. A few more boats show up, back near the bridge, but they couldn’t care less. The palolo worm hatch has begun.
EUNICE FUCATA—Atlantic palolo worms—live most of their lives on the seafloor, hidden from view inside coral rubble and fossilized reefs. To view them, researchers, like Anja Schulze—associate professor of marine biology at Texas A&M—must crack coral open to reveal the worms inside. “We don’t really know what they’re doing in there,” Schulze says.
Schulze has studied marine worms for more than twenty years. On her A&M website bio, she displays a quote that hints at her enthusiasm: “About three quarters of all species in the ocean are invertebrates!” Schulze admits there isn’t much recent scientific information available on Atlantic palolos (a scientific paper recounting a study of the worms in the Dry Tortugas, archived online, was published in 1902). Their cousins, the Pacific palolo, have been more widely studied.
What we do see, on occasion—what anglers anticipate, and tarpon and other fish key in on in Florida—is the reproductive swarm of the Atlantic palolo. During such an event, what anglers call the worm hatch, the sexually mature ends (epikotes) of the palolo detach and swim to the surface, carrying within them a kind of reproductive pod. “They basically throw off their posterior ends,” says Schulze. At some point, the products in these posterior segments (gametes) are discharged into the sea. “I don’t think they make it very far, as they usually burst and disintegrate shortly after reaching the surface,” Schulze says. That is, if they’re not eaten. If all goes well, the result of the swarm is baby palolos. The rest of the worm—typically about a foot long—remains in the coral below.
“These worms are able to regenerate their missing ends,” Schulze says. As for how many times one palolo can regenerate and detach its posterior end, or how long they live, science doesn’t yet know.
In other words: One of the most highly anticipated spectacles in flyfishing takes place when an aquatic worm detaches its ass-end, which, full of reproductive goods, swims to the surface in a frantic attempt to proliferate the species. There you have it.
ABOUT THIRTY YEARS AGO, Florida Keys’ guide Rob Fordyce tied up a sparse red fly on a small hook. He showed the fly to Stu Apte, a mentor of his, whom he considers “one of the godfathers of flyfishing for tarpon.” Stu looked the fly over. He was familiar with tarpon flies; some still bear his name. He told Fordyce it was pretty—a good representation—but too small. Tarpon would never see it. Using his new, “too small” fly the next day, Fordyce put ten tarpon in the air.
“Back then, guys weren’t trying to emulate the worms very much,” Fordyce remembers. “Tarpon were and still are less offended by worm flies. If you throw a big fly, it has to land perfectly, or else the fish spooks.”
Small worm flies allow Fordyce and his anglers to sneak in casts with stealth and precision. Even in the months before or after a hatch, Fordyce throws worm flies with confidence, and the tarpon respond.
To swim his flies in a way that emulates the palolo’s mad dash, Fordyce employs tiny, fast-paced bumps with a one, or steady two-handed retrieve. “These fish definitely recognize the worm and their movements,” Fordyce says.
Thirty years after he tied his first worm fly, Fordyce—widely considered one of the top Keys’ tarpon guides—still banks on palolo patterns. He spends most of his time hunting migratory oceanside tarpon that are notoriously hard to feed, though he’s not afraid to throw worm flies in Florida Bay, or to spooky, laid-up fish. Worm flies work for him in nearly every scenario.
“The worm flies started out with feathers, then maybe some marabou with chenille,” Fordyce says. “I’ve experimented with other tail materials, like leather, foam, even some rubber skirt material from off-shore jigs, cut into little segments. Tarpon eat the heck out of it.”
Fordyce has fished and guided dozens of Keys’ worm hatches. He starts to see shifts in tarpon behavior a day or two before the worms show up en masse.
Keys’ tarpon travel along oceanside contours during their migration, he explains. On a given tide, they swim these edges in somewhat predictable lanes. A day or two before the worm hatch, however, tarpon may approach recklessly, from all directions. It’s as if they’re searching for worms. Fordyce wonders if the worms secrete something tarpon can smell. The fish are often more willing to bite then, he says. Like clockwork, their drastic shift in behavior precedes the worm hatch.
The day before, or afternoon of, a worm hatch can produce memorable tarpon fishing, according to Rich Campiola, an accomplished, younger-generation Keys guide. “There are no worms around yet, but they’re looking,” he says. “If the fly you present is the first worm they see when they’re looking, they smack it.” Campiola, who usually focuses on backcountry tarpon in Florida Bay, notices his spots drying up a little a day or two before the hatch—he wonders if the fish head for the ocean in anticipation. “You can tell something’s going on,” he says.
During a hatch, it’s as if the tarpon pause their migration to key in on the worms. “It’s just like a hatch in a river,” Fordyce says. “It causes a reaction. I’ve seen a tarpon eat a worm on the right side of my boat, then swim underneath it and take a [worm] fly on the left side. That’s pretty unusual for such a spooky fish.”
When the hatch goes off, you won’t find Campiola at one of the main channels, or better-known spots like Bahia Honda, Seven-Mile Bridge, or Vaca Cut. “There are lesser-known places away from the big bridges, with smaller hatches,” he says. “Less worms and less fish, but better fishing and fewer boats. Last year I was in a spot with maybe two other boats within a quarter-mile. The smaller ones are more fun anyway; they’re more personal.”
“I just like watching it,” says Campiola, “maybe collecting a few worms. It usually happens on nice calm evenings. You’re out there admiring the tarpon, maybe having a beer. It’s a spectacle; it’s special. Tarpon anglers dream of fishing the worm hatch. The guys on the bow, though, they don’t catch many [during a hatch]. But it’s about more than just the fishing.”
Campiola has witnessed the chaos of a Bahia Honda hatch, with its incredible volume of worms, tarpon, and anglers. He doesn’t plan on returning. “It can be a real shit show,” he says.
Talk to a dozen anglers and guides, and you might get a dozen different theories about the importance of the palolo worm: maybe their hatch triggers the tarpon spawn, maybe their protein value is off the charts.
“Often, people think tarpon are gorging themselves [on the worms] and therefore the hatch must be an important source of food and energy,” says Dr. Ross Boucek, Florida Keys Initiative Manager for Bonefish & Tarpon Trust. “In reality, these worms are merely table scraps. Tarpon likely get most of their energy and growth from places outside the Keys.”
His colleague, UMass Amherst Ph.D. candidate Lucas Griffin, tends to agree. “I’ve heard the idea that the worms are a tarpon aphrodisiac, but I don’t entirely buy into it,” Griffin says. “I certainly don’t have the science to prove it.” Griffin’s focus, as a research associate with BTT, has been working on a five-year tarpon-tracking study using acoustic telemetry. Tarpon swim a hundred or more miles offshore to spawn each spring, he says, around a new or full moon, at depths of four hundred or more feet. The exact location of where they spawn is still unknown.
He believes the worm feast is more of a convenience. “These tarpon have been migrating through the Keys for thousands of years,” he says. “It’s no surprise they’ve keyed in on the worm hatch.” Keys’ guides, he suggests, are sharply attuned to the micro-actions of crabs, baitfish, and worms, but then again, so are the tarpon. “Tarpon know exactly where their food sources are,” Griffin says.
The overall food source for tarpon in the Keys is relatively insignificant, says Griffin, in comparison to the sources they encounter at other points along their annual migration. “South Carolina, Georgia, Apalachicola—in some of these places the water is literally rippling with biomass,” he says. “I couldn’t fathom it when I saw it. While the tarpon are there, they’re gorging themselves on many species, but particularly Atlantic menhaden and mullet.”
Griffin believes overwintering places like the Everglades system can simultaneously provide both “great feeding arenas” for tarpon and ideal temperatures in which to take refuge. But their time in the Keys, he says, is mostly a brief hiatus along their journey: they’re there primarily to spawn.
One agreed-upon Keys’ worm hatch element is its timing: late May through the end of June, sometimes as late as July; evening falling tides around the new, or full moon. Big tides that push water, anywhere from Key Largo to Key West. Like any hatch, the palolos can be unpredictable—there might be worms one night, then nothing for another month. Or palolos may swarm five or six nights in a row. Some years are better than others, though there tends to be a peak event each season, one tide in which the worms (and the fish eating them) are most active. As the end of May approaches, anticipation in the Keys builds. The moon phase aligns; the tides get bigger. Anglers and guides start looking—it could happen at any time.
When it does, worm hatch information sometimes makes its way onto social media. “Some people are so excited to see it,” Campiola says. “But the nice thing about it is that it’s a very short window of time. You’ve got to be out there for it. If you see something [a post] from the day before, you’re already too late. You may not find it again.”
“And you know, it’s probably best that we don’t know everything about the worm hatch,” Campiola admits. He pauses for a minute, then says:
“If we did, it might take away from its allure.”
CHANNEL FIVE, 8:15 p.m. Oceanside. Most of the boats have cleared out. Tide nearly low. The two guides ignore their vibrating phones. Every once in a while, a tarpon sips the last of the worms. The air is heavy. Lightning offshore. They’re exhausted but they keep casting, drifting now, covering territory. The guide in the stern hooks up, shouts, watches a huge silhouette thrash its head, sea water spraying. His friend fires the engine. The tarpon, like the worms that have survived, heads for the open ocean. They give chase, closing the gap. He pulls hard, knows the best angles. The tarpon tires a boat-length away, tail wagging. It rolls and gulps air. Light fades. The ocean shimmers slate-grey and purple. In a few short hours, both guides will coach clients flown down from Chicago, or Seattle, along with their tailing loops and high expectations. How will they explain what they’ve seen tonight? They might keep it to themselves.
The guide fights the tarpon a few minutes longer. The fish surges. The guide pulls harder, tries to apply the brakes. Shock tippet gives. The two friends high five and turn back for the lights of the bridge. Cars cross it heading for Key West, or Miami. The two guides—awestruck anglers, tonight—idle between the stanchions, then punch the skiff onto plane. In their settling wake, the reflected bridge lights dance. The tide is nearly slack. Beneath the lights, below the surface, riding the last push of outgoing tide, a worm’s rear-end bolts for the sea.