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Fishing the cinder worm hatch

June 13, 2011

I like to look around the docks at night, where the charter boats park. Deckhands puff butts and chuck guts, friends linger stern-side telling boisterous tales, and striped bass lurk in dark places waiting to ambush a bait fish or a teasing lure flaunting itself under floodlights. The depths fascinate with eels and crabs and pogies and bunker and silversides and herring fry and bluefish. But, in my book, nothing beats the rare and bizarre eruption of a cinder worm hatch.

A strong hatch will make all the water in the harbor writhe and come alive with spinning, dancing worms. On a calm, clear, windless night, the illuminated surface looks like it is being showered with a steady rain. Look closer and you will see two-tone worms, pink and black, shooting through the water and spinning round and round each other like a tiger chasing it’s tail, like a little tornado.

Cinder worms are also known as sand worms, genus Nereis. They emerge from the mud at night to spawn; all that frenetic contra-dancing is a feverish whirlpool of males and females releasing sperm and eggs into the water. Full moons seem to trigger this explosion of activity, and May and June are the months to catch a glimpse of this incredible spectacle.

For fishing folk, the uncommon occurrence presents the opportunity to catch more than a view of wild worms in mating frenzy. Striped bass love cinder worm hatches. Once the bass are keyed in to that food, it’s almost impossible to coax them to hit anything else. Running with the concept of presenting something different but equally delicious, I’ve tried fishing plugs – swimmers, needlefish, pencil poppers, darts – and even Colorado spoons and Hopkins and Kastmaster metal lures, but I’ve never enticed a bite. Striped bass on cinder worms want cinder worms. In order to properly present that forage, we need to go fly fishing. And for that we go to Tony Stetzko.

While I don’t normally fly fish, I do have an outfit and I tie some flies, mostly woolly buggers for freshwater fishing and Clouser minnows and Lefty’s deceivers for salt. I happened upon a great cinder worm hatch last summer and caught some with my two-year-old son. We popped them in a water bottle and watched them swim and spin. Tony took my fly rod and a black and orange woolly bugger and headed down to the harbor to show me how it’s done. He returned an hour or so later after landing a 36-inch striper. That big, wily fish wasn’t easy to land from the fuel dock. She made a run for it, swimming under the dock, and there was some kind of do-see-do with the pilings that transpired, with Tony having to pass the rod from hand to hand around the big posts as the fish took line and tried to shake the hook.

That night, I was reminded of a few incontrovertible truths of striper fishing. Tony’s mastery of the angling art exceeds mine by leaps and bounds. Striped bass will hit a two-inch-long fly (or lure) that closely resembles many thousands of other similar-looking things during a feeding frenzy.  And respectably large fish do enter funky pockets of  inshore water if presented with the right invitation. Match their invite with your own reproduction and you, too, could be trying to haul a 25-pound fish over dock lines and bulkhead.

The cinder worm hatch is on at Rock Harbor. For rod-less bystanders, watching bass feast on worms is worth the price of admission. For fly fishermen, there is a nice opportunity to cast a black and red or pink or even orange pattern into the swirling fray and hook some sweet stripers.

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