Above: When mud-bottomed backwaters reach 60 degrees, spawning worms emerge and stripers show up to feast.
Picture this: It’s a warm spring evening out on your favorite stream. The air is thick with insects hatching, and you are shaking with excitement as you walk down to the water. All around you, trout are delicately rising and sipping bugs off the surface. This a pretty classic fly-fishing scene, right? Now, replace that lake or stream with a salt pond or estuary, trade those trout for 30-inch stripers, and the bugs for red, squiggly cinder worms. Welcome to a worm hatch.
What are Cinder Worms?
Cinder worms are small red, pink, or tan aquatic worms that live in the mud of many salt ponds and estuaries. Every spring when the water reaches the low 60s, they wiggle out of the bottom and swim to the surface in a mesmerizing dance.
If you happen to see one, the water will be covered in little dimples—almost as if it’s drizzling—but a closer look reveals thousands of 2- to 3-inch worms darting all around the surface. These squirmers don’t journey out of the comforts of the mud toward the striper-infested surface just for fun. In fact this isn’t really a “hatch” at all—it’s a large-scale spawning ritual.
Finding and Fishing a Worm Hatch
I randomly found my favorite worm hatch location on my way home from fishing in a different area. At the time, I had no idea there was such thing as a cinder worm—I was 12, after all. A much more reliable method is to actually scout several locations likely to have cinder worm spawns.
Start by making a list of five salt ponds, estuaries, or other backwaters that you can check somewhat regularly, so don’t select spots too far out of your way. When choosing these, you should consider a few factors:
- Does the location have a muddy bottom? Cinder worms live in mud, so if there’s no mud, there will be no worms.
- Is this spot protected from the open water? You’re more likely to find cinder worm spawns in backwater areas (i.e., areas connected to but protected from open water). Check harbors, estuaries, salt ponds, and marshes.
- Lastly, does this area have fish? Determining the “fishiness” of a location requires an angler’s intuition. Can you picture fish holding here?
If you find a spot that fits all three of these criteria, add it to your scout list. Check them every few evenings, starting around the last week or two of April. Typically, most hatches pop off during the first half of May, so give yourself a healthy margin when it comes to scouting.
When you check the locations, bring a thermometer with you. Keeping track of the water temperatures will help you predict the start of the hatch. The magic number is 60 degrees.
When you’ve actually found a worm hatch, it’s time to move to the next challenge— catching a fish. The first tip is about fly and cast placement. Anglers have varying opinions here, but I always have more success trying to lead a cruising or boiling fish with my cast instead of casting right to the middle of a splash. Stripers move around quite a bit during the hatch, so casting straight to a splash is casting where a fish was. If you have an idea which way a fish is moving, drop the fly a few feet ahead of it. This gives you a better chance of getting your fly in front of more fish.
Another key factor is fishing your fly with confidence. If you buy your worm fly from a shop, see it online or, better yet, tie your own, it will work. Just because you don’t get a bite right away doesn’t mean you have to switch your fly—that’s just part of the game. Before changing your fly, experiment with different retrieves and cast placements. If those don’t work and you believe the fish have seen your fly, only then should you change it.
Worm Hatch Etiquette
It is amazing that striped bass, after migrating through the open ocean, pour into backwaters to feast on small worms. As incredible as hatches are, they are also delicate, which is why fishermen are very protective about their timing and locations. There is room for everyone to enjoy them each spring, just as long as anglers are respectful of the location, the fish, and each other. This means keeping the fish in the water as much as possible, using appropriate and barbless hooks, and practicing catch and release.
Tying a Cinder Worm Fly
When I first fished a worm hatch, the closest thing I had to a worm fly was a tan Crazy Charlie, so I tied that on but caught no fish. I took a few pictures of worms and decided I would try to tie my own cinder worm fly.
For the next year or so, I tried any design that came to mind, using just about any material I could get my hands on until I thought up this masterpiece—a prickly Wooly Bugger!
Since cinder worms are long cylinders with a bunch of little leg-like appendages on their sides, a prickly Wooly Bugger would be a fairly close match. The only thing I changed was adding foam to the head to keep it near the surface and to provide a bobbing side-to-side action as it is stripped through the water. It’s a subtle detail, but it boosts my confidence in the fly, so I always add it.
A Portal to May
Last spring the hatch came relatively early, in the first week of May, at the spot I like to fish. My dad and I had been scouting one location every few nights for a couple of weeks, so we were first to the party when it finally did kick off. There is no better feeling than walking up to your spot to find the water alive with the dimples of darting worms and the splashes of feeding bass.
The previous year had been my first real success at a worm hatch, when I landed a nice schoolie on one of the last casts of the night. That fish was a major confidence booster. I knew I was fishing the right fly the right way, and I felt confident in the gear I was using. Because of that fish, I knew cracking the code was possible, but far from a given. As I cast to boil after boil, I remembered how hard this fishery really is and how much I loved the challenge.
After many untouched casts, I tried to place the fly where I thought a fish was going. I felt my fly had a better shot of actually getting in front of a cruising bass instead of just near where one had surfaced. Soon after I put my theory into practice, my line was ripped out of my hand, and I was tight! I quickly brought the fish to hand, and it was a beautiful, worm-stuffed schoolie. Dad snapped a few pictures, and my little buddy and I parted ways.
Not long after, while marveling at how frustrating these fish were (it’s funny how quickly the feeling of success can wear off), my dad started yelling that he was on. His rod was doubled over, his reel was screaming, and I could see his backing leaving the reel. He told me he thought this bass was truly monstrous, and because my dad has seen some big bass in his day, my mind was racing at the thought of what was on the end of his line.
He stayed tight to the fish for a good while, but as the fight dragged on, victory seemed increasingly unlikely. The fish eventually ripped around the other end of the pond, and with a loud Pop!, the fight was over. I have never seen such a devastated look on Dad’s face. As we walked home, I couldn’t stop thinking of that fish Dad lost, and the sound of those loud, deep gulps that every striper fisherman’s dreams are made of.
A few nights later, Dad and I found time to head out to see what was left of the hatch. Since they may last only a few days, especially in smaller ponds and backwaters, missing a night or two might mean missing out on the rest of the hatch.
As we walked up to the shoreline, we could see that both the worms and feeding fish were condensed into a very specific area on the far side of the pond. As we walked toward the action, I couldn’t help but think that this was likely the last shot we had at the hatch until next season.
The fish were feeding well within casting distance of the bank, but the abundance of bushes and trees—better known as fly magnets—made it so I had to wade to make room for my backcast. My positioning had fish surfacing all around me, but thankfully, the bass were too preoccupied by the worms to notice my presence.
I did my best not to get overwhelmed by the stripers porpoising all around me and to focus my casts in one area, but all my thoughts were thrown out the window when I heard a massive Gulp! to my right. I whipped my head around to see a big boil just a rod’s length away with a wide V-wake trailing it.
With one motion, I lifted my rod from my left and shot line across my body to the head of the wake. My fly plopped down a good 18 inches ahead of it, I took one strip, and the fish inhaled my fly. With one good strip set, I was tight!
The bass responded with one big swipe of its tail, ripping the line out of my hands and leaving behind a whirlpool. As it took off, I cleared most of my line onto the reel with no issue until I reached a nasty bird’s nest of a knot. At this point, the fish was still on its first run, so all I could do was try to pull the knot loose as the fish kept taking line. I managed to get through a good chunk of the tangle before I had to let the fish run again and a small knot in my fly line not-so-delicately shot through the guides of my 8 weight.
I tightened up my drag as much as my 16-pound-test tippet allowed and hoped for the best. The bass must have gone at least 100 feet into my backing on that first run before it stopped for a rest; even as it rested, I struggled to turn its head. This dance is one anglers grow to love: the fish runs itself tired and takes a rest, we gain some line, the fish doesn’t appreciate our generous attempts at friendship, and it takes off again, burning through any progress made.
The fight continued, and with every small run and headshake, I worried about a repeat of what had happened to my dad a few nights earlier. I knew my best chance to land this fish was to end the fight as quickly as I could, so I started laying into it, putting as much pressure as my tippet would allow. Finally, I made progress and the connection to my fly line was in sight. This also meant the knot in my line was coming up and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. The only idea that made sense was to point my rod at the fish and try to reel the knot through the guides. That risked breaking off the fish and possibly breaking my rod but, miraculously, the knot came through the guides without even a bump. Dad looked at me as if I had just pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of thin air. The sense of relief didn’t last long because I knew I had more line to gain while preventing the bass from taking another run.
The fish gods blessed me yet again and I was able to keep the runs under control. It was now time for the end game. The knot was behind me and I could start to see the color change in the fly line that signified my shooting head, which meant I had only about 20 feet left to the leader.
I kept my rod at a low angle and kept the pressure on the fish. In situations like this, slow and steady wins the race—or lands the fish. We finally caught a look at the fish, and Dad waded out a bit deeper. He was about waist-deep, camera in one hand, the other hand ready for a tussle. As soon as the fish saw us, it took another short run. This was expected, but nerve-wracking nonetheless.
If fighting a fish is like a dance, the end-stage is a solo. With the fish only feet in front of me, nothing else existed. With big bass on fly tackle, the object is to keep steady, opposing pressure (pulling away from the direction the fish is moving) in order to lift its head. I leaned into the butt of my rod and the bass reluctantly turned upward. Quickly but delicately, Dad controlled the leader with one hand , placed the camera in his waders, and reached out to the striper’s large, clamped-shut mouth. After what felt like a century, he got his thumb around its lower lip, securing our catch.
Once I regained my composure, Dad transferred the grip to me, and I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the fish I’d just caught. It was not the biggest striped bass I’d ever hooked, but it was a meaningful one. I’d caught it on a fly I’d tied specifically for the worm spawn in a place where my dad and I had put in hours together in search of a fish like that.
I knew it was important to limit the handling time and the last thing I wanted to do was to accidentally kill a fish after such a memorable battle. We snapped a few photos, and with one deep, wet splash, its broom of a tail kicked out of my hands and back into the pond. The sun was setting, the hatch was dying off, and after a well-earned high five, we packed it up and headed for the car.