Tarpon are odd game fish in that they are known to prey on a variety of organisms, but it can be tough to predict the flavor of the day. Countless anglers find frustration in making perfect presentations with what they think is the right bait, only to elicit a refusal from their target species. However, in the coming months, one occasion will eliminate all the guessing – the palolo worm hatch. When the hatch occurs, there’s no doubt this is what the solver king will be feeding on.
As the old saying goes, “elephants eat peanuts,” and many anglers find themselves applying that sentiment to sport fishing. Whether it’s finding tiny squid in the belly of a 300-pound swordfish, catching a 40-inch snook on a small shrimp or any other among many examples, big baits don’t always mean big fish. In the world of tarpon fishing, this is often true as these fish feed on shrimp, crabs, small baitfish and more. However, one annual occurrence that proves this point convincingly is the palolo worm hatch that takes place in the Florida Keys.
May and June comprise peak tarpon season in the Keys as these fish inundate the region, providing countless opportunities for local and visiting anglers to get in on the action. While this stellar tarpon action lasts a few months, from late spring throughout most of the summer, there is a short period during this worm hatch when these fish seem to know exactly when to crowd ocean-side flats, awaiting the endless buffet of worms.
The reason ocean-side flats are the epicenter of this action has to do with the palolo worms, which hatch from the coral, rock and sponges that are common in these venues. Naturally, these helpless hatchlings become easy meals for the seemingly endless line of tarpon waiting to feed. Tarpon are skilled hunters, but sucking down a cloud of newborn worms takes very little energy from these fish and helps fuel their upcoming spawn. As we learn more about this unique natural event, it becomes more evident just how important it is for the tarpon in the area.
With a slight resemblance to earthworms, these reddish wigglers rise to the surface once they hatch to begin their migration offshore to the reef. Fortunately for the tarpon, this migration is very predictable and the fish always seem to be a step ahead, knowing exactly when it’s time to set their sights on these worms. Additionally, it should be noted that when the hatch is going on and these fish are gorging themselves on these tiny worms, anglers find they won’t get any bites on anything other than a fly mimicking one of these worms. Shrimp, crab and baitfish imitations all go ignored, while even live mullet, pilchard, pinfish and crabs won’t get eaten. Though this hatch is very short-lived and the fish will quickly go back to feeding on other prey items once it’s over, anglers find themselves struggling to get a bite despite the feeding frenzy taking place.
Naturally, the fish have a very accurate sense of when the hatch will take place, but predicting this event is a little more difficult for anglers. If you’re planning on pinpointing exactly when the hatch will occur, you might want to re-think your plan as it’s almost impossible. Instead, the anglers who see it coming are the ones on the water most days who can notice changes in the behavior of these fish as they prepare for the hatch. Furthermore, the hatch can happen at any point from May to July, so you really just have to be in the right place at the right time. That said, the hatch occurs either on a full or new moon and a late outgoing tide. In the age of social media, anglers also take to networking through these digital platforms to spread the word when the hatch has begun. When that happens, you have a very short window to get out there and capitalize on it. When it’s all said and done, the action only occurs one or two evenings per year.
If you do, however, time it right and find yourself in the middle of feeding fish during the hatch, the action can be non-stop. Because of the difficulty and rarity of this event, there aren’t many imitations out there other than a few flies that work well. This is a fishery largely limited to fly-fishermen, but when you’ve got the right fly and find yourself in the middle of the frenzy, the action is hot. If you see or hear of palolo worms in the area, simply make your way to ocean-side flats on a late outgoing tide and be ready to cast to tarpon feeding near the surface.
Ultimately, there is not a lot of information out there on these Atlantic palolo worms as they possess no commercial value and are only noticed a few days of the year. However, to dedicated fly-fishermen, they fuel one of the most stunning natural feeding events in the world and those who are fortunate enough to witness it won’t soon forget about it. All you can really do is take the information we do know about these tiny worms and stack the odds in your favor, but success ultimately hinges on great timing and getting lucky.
Phases of the Moon
- New Moon 4/30
- First Quarter 5/8
- Full Moon 5/16
- Third Quarter 5/22
- New Moon 5/30
- First Quarter 6/7
- Full Moon 6/14
- Third Quarter 6/20