Tips for fishing during marine worm swarms

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Tips for fishing during marine worm swarms
Worms Gone Wild!

Believe it or not you can drop a fly in such a melee and not get a hit.

By Jim White In time, anglers discover that a worm swarm is a doubled-edged sword. You either love ’em, or you hate ’em, with very little latitude at either end of the spectrum. The fact is, the cinder worm hatch, as it is sometimes called, is a spawning ritual, and not a true hatch at all. Just millions of tiny worms twisting and gyrating on the water’s surface.

Well-intentioned crossover freshwater fly anglers mistakenly coined it a hatch years ago, perhaps because of the sheer volume of biomass, much like when mayflies fill the air on trout streams. Worm swarms usually take place at dusk, sometimes as early as late April but more consistently in May and June as the weather settles. The new and full moon periods see lower tidal ranges which expose mud flats where the worms live. There’s debate over whether the full or dark moon is best; however, the proper water temperature, occurring with a late-afternoon low tide appears to be the best combination of conditions for them to appear. Their appearance is usually prompted by warm, clear days that allow the sun to heat shallow salt ponds or tidal flats.

0805-worms-5.jpg Swarms like this one form in the spring around the full or new moon.

When a swarm occurs, there are literally millions of worms twisting and darting in the water. Sometimes there are so many worms, the water looks like it’s full of red weed, and the water will actually turn reddish-pink.

In New England the swarming worms are called clam worms. No one has actually identified precisely what types of worms we actually have, since there are well over 300 different species of worms along the Atlantic Coast. The common clam worm, Nereis succinea, is a wandering benthic predator, and one of the most widespread bristle worm species. Though it reaches a length of five or six inches, it’s more common to find smaller specimens. Its anterior portion is usually brown and the “head” has four eyes, feelers at the mouth and tentacles.

Normally, these swarms take place at the same time and in the same place, year after year. Once you’ve observed this natural wonder, you won’t soon forget the spectacle. When the worms begin to swarm, you will find them along the shorelines in upper estuaries, in shallow rivers, shallow coves, in creeks, and on tidal flats where soft mud bottoms exist. Over the grassier bottoms, swarms tend to be less intense, or simply don’t happen at all. A spring low tide typically exposes the bottom, which in turn is then heated by the sun. Mixed sand and mud bottom seem to produce the best swarms.

Weather is also an important factor in worm-swarm intensity. It should be relatively warm with stable conditions for a few days; temperatures of 60 to 65 degrees are best and the ideal tide phase is an early falling tide in late afternoon. Once a swarm begins, it can continue all night long and into the early morning hours.


It isn’t too often that these worms get much bigger than an inch or an inch-and-a-half in length while the swarm is going on. Because there are so many different species of worms, coloration runs the gamut. Light green, blue-green, cream, pink, reddish-green or brown are common. Most knowledgeable fly anglers that fish the swarms carry impressionistic worm patterns in at least two or three different colors or color combinations with them when fishing a swarm.

The Worm Man

One of Rhode Island’s premier worm-swarm specialists is 73-year-old Gene Matteson, of Cranston, Rhode Island. He has had more success fishing the worm swarm than anyone I know. He has also taught many other anglers how to be successful as well—a virtue he is not often credited for.

I asked Matteson about fishing this phenomenon. “It’s not only the most exciting fishing but it can also be the most frustrating fishing you will ever encounter,” he claims.

“I’ve heard that quite a few fishermen, once the hatch is in full swing, will simply go the other way and leave it. They become that frustrated with it,” says Matteson.


“I fly fish exclusively during the swarms, and prefer a 9-foot rod rated for a 9-weight line. However, I like to overload a 9-weight with a 10-weight floating line. Just like any other type of fishing, you are going to make an awful lot of casts between strikes. I like the ease in which this outfit casts. It doesn’t tire me out, and at my age, that’s a good thing,” he remarked.

Matteson fishes an 8- to 10-foot leader with a dropper tied in about 30 inches up from the trailing fly. His leaders are made from 20-pound fluorocarbon leader material and the dropper fly is attached with a non-slip loop knot, as well as the main fly. This works well—at no time will the fly come in sideways. The fly should be cast into feeding stripers and retrieved immediately with 6-inch strips.

Matteson points out one piece of wisdom that I too consider the key to hooking up during swarms, to what may be the finickiest stripers of all: fishing when there is a slight ripple on the water’s surface. This helps break up the silhouette of the fly. Also, don’t waste valuable time fishing over bass that have thousands of worms around or above them. Instead, move to the outside edges of the swarm and concentrate your efforts on the fringe areas where there are fewer worms, thus less real food.

Your chances of duping a worm-swarm striper are best when the worms are first beginning to swarm and as the swarm tapers off. Many experienced anglers actually try to time their arrival for either one or the other because the fishing is so much better with less food in the water. And, if you can force yourself to totally ignore all the feeding activity that is happening before your very eyes, which is not an easy thing to do, and concentrate on using a large fly or something else that’s six to nine inches in length, you may be surprised at how big a striper you will catch in spite of all those worms. I’ve taken a number of fish from 20 to 30 pounds fishing this way during a swarm. This “big food-big fish” tactic works because the worms are also eaten by smaller fish, eels, herring, big silversides and mantis shrimp. Big cow stripers, especially during the spring, will normally target the larger-size baits as opposed to the tiny worms.

Matteson has also developed a worm fly, Gene’s Cinder Worm, through trial and error and hundreds of hours on the water fishing for stripers. He ties it on a No. 6 salmon hook. It has a loosely wrapped body of red Glow-Bug yarn, a wing comprised of yellow and gray bucktail extending a half-inch past the bend of the hook. Finally, the head is built from four or five turns of black ostrich herl. It’s a good imitation, and is fairly foul-proof. Other notable worm patterns include Page Roger’s Velvet Worm, Dixon’s Cinder Worm, Rovinski’s Red hackle Worm and Kenny Abrame’s Worm.


Light Tackle Options

If you do not fly fish, the smaller soft plastics on the market will work on worm-drunk stripers. Without a doubt, the versatile Slug-Go, invented by Herb Reed of Lunker City Fishing Specialists, has been one of the most productive soft-plastic, light-tackle lures that there is for fishing a worm swarm. I’ve had the most success fishing a bubblegum-colored Slug-Go in a tandem rig. First, rig a 6-inch Slug-Go on a 2/0 Tex-Pose hook. By wrapping the shank of the hook with rod-winding thread before positioning it in the body of the bait, you’ll be able to glue it in place thus keeping the hook from moving and tearing the plastic after repeated casts or hits. I use PRO’s Soft-Bait Glue that is formulated for gluing soft-plastic lures. I then tie on a 24-inch leader of 20-pound fluorocarbon. Tie on the first bait using a non-slip loop knot, and then tie a dropper loop about 18 inches up the leader from the first bait. Off of this dropper loop I tie on a 3-inch Slug-Go that is rigged on a No. 1 or 2 hook, again wrapping the shank of the hook first and then gluing it in place. At the top I tie on a quality ball bearing swivel to prevent line twist. It turns out that many anglers avoid using the Slug-Go because it tends to twist your line. The ball-bearing swivel cures that. And a baitcasting reel, compared to a spinning reel, will keep line twist to a minimum as well.

The smaller sizes of the popular Fin-S Fish, in the 2- and 3-inch size, are ideal droppers ahead of a 6-inch Slug-Go. You will need to scale down the size of the hooks you use in these little guys so you don’t kill the action of the lure. Something like a No. 2 or 4 hook is ideal. Best colors for soft baits include bubblegum, black, red shad, yellow or white.

With soft-plastic lures you might opt to apply some sort of scent to mask the odor of the plastic itself, or unrelated scents. I have seen how effective this is time after time on my boat with clients. A company called Seabait ( makes a product of ground-up sea worm extract that is quite powerful and also very effective, especially during the swarm. Simply place a few drops on your baits while fishing. Sometimes the worm scent can make all the difference in the world of catching fish or being skunked.

To cast such light plastics for distance, choose light to medium-light rods in the 7- to 71⁄2-foot range matched to spin reels designed for 8- to 10-pound-test line. Most swarm bass are small, with perhaps a few fish reaching the teens.

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Some pics and what to fish, good topic. Many guys just give up but if you're creative and use a good fly pattern as a teaser you can get em.

This is for fly fishing, but some on forum sites talk about putting small rubber 3" worms on jig-heads and fishing them as well.

Flyfishing in Saltwaters: March/April 2004


How to get the big guys to eat flies when the fodder is small

By Captain John McMurray

“Awe… Are you kidding me!!!” I scream in frustration after the third follow from a humongo striper. I’m talking a fish well over the 40-inch mark casually swimming behind my epoxy sandeel imitation. You know that intense feeling you get when you witness a big fish tracking your fly…the heart rate increases and the sweat immediately forms on your brow. Then the insulting refusal and the maddening, “what if I’d done something differently” disappointment sets in the moment the fish turns and darts off into the abyss.

It’s the seventh fly change today, and I’ve seen dozens of large stripers and thousands of tiny sandeels… I can’t buy a strike. David suggests I tie on a bigger fly. I tell him he’s aknucklehead, and turn back to scan the bright expanse of sand flat in front of us. Out of the corner of my eye I notice David huddling over his fly bag. Shortly after that I hear a whack as David back-casts a 7-inch bulky, chartreuse and white clouser back-boarding it off my new outboard, leaving a nice white ding, but sailing it like a dart 60-feet onto the edge of the flat. I complain about his treatment of my outboard and then begin to mention that his fly looks about as much like a sandeel as I look like Michael Jackson. But before I can get the words out of my mouth, a replica of the large fish that shadowed my fly appears from the drop-off and turns on the fly flashing quick but brilliant silvers, purples and pinks. “Woe!” I yell as David strip-strikes fast into what turns out to be the only fish of the day. For the remainder of the trip, I’m barraged with various colorful versions of “I told you so.”

Normally fishing for trophies amongst small bait like this is very difficult, especially when the sun is high. For the most part, as an evolutionally survival technique, large predators of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast (stripers, blues, weakfish, tunas etc.), prefer big bait and the big protein that goes along with it. The older larger fish of the species got that way because they are smart, and they don’t usually waste valuable energy chasing around tiny morsels when they can expend less effort and get more bang for the buck swallowing the big nutritious stuff like menhaden, mullet or herring. It’s usually the schoolies and the pups that you’ll find harassing the smaller bait and eagerly taking flies.

But when big bait is not present, which is increasingly becoming the case these days (see sidebar), it’s no secret that large predators will most certainly gobble down the small stuff in mass. Unfortunately, this is when those big fish become very picky and are particularly hard to catch. After all, why would a lunker bother, or for that matter, even notice a small effort to match the hatch when it is intent on wolfing down the small fish in mass. My experience is that the larger fish become extremely difficult when feeding on rain bait, shrimp, tiny crab hatches or worm hatches. The exception here of course, is the bay anchovy phenomenon that happens in Montauk, NY where bait concentrations are so thick that it’s worth it for large stripers to forage through the bait masses with mouths agape. This is “stupid” fishing and doesn’t apply to the methods discussed here. In that circumstance you can throw a piece of yarn in the mayhem, let it sit and expect to get a hookup.

Getting back to the difficult task of fooling trophies when they are feeding on the smallest of critters, there are a few tactics, techniques, and various things you can try that will up your big fish odds significantly. While theses methods may seem crude to some, they are in fact effective in enticing those larger fish, which are focused on gulping up massive amounts of small bait. The following are a few methods I’ve found to be particularly successful.


I’m a huge fan of noise-making surface flies. Not just for their effectiveness, but because of the heart-stopping, adrenalin inducing strikes. There is nothing that compares to seeing a big fish boil, slap and eventually engulf a surface fly. Gartside gurglers are great, Joe Blados’ invention of the crease fly was brilliant, but nothing tops the boiling, splashing and generally offensive action of a hollowed out cone head popper. Popovicks’ bangers come in a close second. Regardless of what bait is around these noisemakers, especially when outfitted with a small rattle, will undoubtedly get a predators attention. I’ve found them to work particularly well in enticing strikes from large fish during small bait hatches when nothing else will.

For the most part, poppers look and act nothing like a grass shrimp, silverside, spearing, bay anchovie, cinder worm, crab etc. So why do big predators always seem to whack them when they are visually feeding on small bait? This phenomenon can be explained by what I’ve termed the “annoyance factor.” Big bluefish, stripers, redfish, snook etc., are aggressive, territorial hunters. They can’t help but notice and get annoyed at the audacity of a noisy obnoxious thing cruising across a flat. Regardless of the bait they are foraging on, the bigger predators feel that whatever is making all this commotion must be punished. They just can’t resist taking a whack it.

I’m fairly certain this theory is true because when the larger bait is around, predators will usually engulf a popper on the first or second go because, in effect, it does look and act like a wounded mullet or bunker. However, when predators are on small bait, they aren’t necessarily trying to eat the noise-making fly, therefore they will boil on the popper, slap it with it’s tail, and generally play around with it before hopefully going after it with it’s mouth. Therefore, hook-ups become much more difficult in this scenario.

During a trip to the Hamptons a few years ago, I suffered the constant badgering of East End, New York guide Captain David Blinken, as I missed one strike after another on a popper as fish boiled, tail-slapped and did things that sent my popper airborne. The stripers, which were mind bogglingly big, just never seemed to go after it with their mouths. After every boil, I would futilely try and set the hook. After that humiliating experience, I determined that those big stripers that were making a fool out of me were not really trying to eat the popper but were trying to punish it for having the insolence to be making all that noise. It was the “annoyance factor” in action.

Through subsequent trial and error, I’ve since realized that there are a couple of very easy things you can do to get a solid hook-up in this situation. The first and most obvious is to have a little willpower. That means not trying to set the hook every time you see a boil. Yes, this is obvious, but believe me, it’s easier said than done. Most red-blooded anglers, including myself, get excited and want to strike at every boil. But try to have patience and don’t set up until the line comes taut. The second thing that has dramatically increased the hookup ratio for my clients and me is to just let your popper rest after it has been boiled on or whacked with a tail. Predators who were not intent on eating the popper, all of the sudden become very interested when they think they’ve stunned whatever the noisemaker was. More times than not, a big bass will suck a hole in the water and the popper will just disappear. Again, it increases the hook up ratio dramatically if you don’t set that hook until the line comes tight.

I’ve had great success drawing strikes from big fish with poppers during difficult cinderworm hatches, tiny crab hatches, grass shrimp hatches and when the rain bait is abundant. At times they’ll draw strikes when nothing else will. There are, however, times when the big guys wont even look at a popper. I’ve found that the early morning hours and the hour just before sunset are the best times for the surface flies. Most of the time, when the sun gets high, for some reason the hogs just don’t want to mess with top-water flies. That’s when it’s time to try another tactic.


Matching the hatch most certainly has its applications, but the more and more I fish in the salt, the more and more I realize that big predators, no matter what they are feeding on prefer a big meal. By all means, the first order of business is to try and pick a fly that is as close to the bait as possible, but often times, there is so much of the smaller bait around that the chances of getting your imitation noticed, much less eaten, are very small. Take a spring grass shrimp hatch for example. There can literally be thousands of these little translucent one-inch critters around. You can throw grass shrimp patterns all day right on top of boils and v-wakes and not get so much as a touch. The simple mechanics of the situation are that even if you get lucky, and your fly gets noticed, it’s probably not going to entice a big predator to eat it, unless it happens to be in a big pod of bait and the predator just happens to plow through it. The short of it is that it’s unlikely.

Again, the larger of the predator species you are targeting are genetically inclined to target the bigger source of protein, so a big fish is much more likely to pick a bigger bait out of the crowd and eat it. That said, it pays to match the color of the bait, but go two to three times larger. Back to the grass shrimp example, I tie a tan and off-white grizzly hackle spayed feather half and half, with a small touch of pink bucktail on the underside. It measures about three to three-and-a-half inches in length, considerably larger than the bait but very close in color. It’s deadly during the grass shrimp hatch. The same can apply with any bait. Match the color and tie it bigger. It will stand out from the rest of the bait concentration and entice the larger fish that are going for that extra protein shot.


After I’ve tried increasing the size and am still getting follows, refusals, short hits or worse, nothing, I’ll do the unheard of, and reach for a chartreuse fly. It’s a simple fact that chartreuse flies work extremely well at enticing larger fish when nothing else will. I have yet to hear a logical and convincing reason why, but just about every sportfish I’ve every targeted, including those in sweet water, love big ugly chartreuse flies. If nothing else, this color is very visible and gets a big predator’s attention for sure. Keep your offering three to four times larger than the bait, and when all else fails go chartreuse. Another highly visible and effective color is pink, or bubble gum. It’s important to recognize that half the battle with small bait concentrations is getting that fly noticed. These two colors are particularly good at doing that.


Along those same lines, rattles are worth their weight in gold when the small bait is abundant. They are now readily available, though most catalogues order outfits and are easily tied right onto the shank of a hook. Their inclusion in a fly can draw several times more strikes than an identical fly without one. I challenge readers to tie a favorite fly with a rattle and then tie the same fly without one. Have a contest with your fishing buddy to see which fly gets more strikes and which fly produces larger fish. I’m fairly certain you’ll find that the fly with the rattle works better if for no other reason than it gets noticed by more fish. Larger predators hit these rattling noisemakers for the same reason they hit poppers. It gets their attention and then annoys them just enough to want to punish them.


While it might go without saying to some readers, it’s still worth mentioning that lengthening you leader and lightening the tippet might help you entice large and picky fish feeding on small forage. I really enjoy catching trophy fish and I enjoy seeing my clients catch trophies. I really, really hate breaking off the big hogs and seeing them amble away uncomfortably with my fly in their mouths. For this reason, I very rarely fish with anything under 17-pound fluorocarbon. I‘m convinced that this stuff is virtually invisible in the water. However, if I keep getting refusals, I will go down to 14 or even 12. But before I do that, I will increase the length of my tapered leader from 8 to 10-feet. I’ve even had circumstances where I haven’t been able to get a strike until I went to 12-feet. If that doesn’t work, only then will I lighten my leader. (I must note here that this doesn’t apply when using poppers. It’s virtually impossible to turn over a big popper with a 12-foot leader.)


Last, but not least, altering your stripping technique during small bait concentrations will sometimes cause shy stripers to attack your fly. Increasing the speed of your retrieve will create considerably more interest from bigger fish that see the offering as a scared piece of bait that’s trying desperately to get the “H” out of dodge. This poses a bit of a problem, especially when you’re on a flat. I tend to run out of room when I’m stripping in line like there’s no tomorrow, only to have the fish spook at the sight of the boat. To correct this problem, I recommend using an erratic stripping technique: Three long hard strips, followed by a pause then some short fast strips and repeat. This allows your fly to spend more time in the water while still providing a fleeing appearance. It also vaguely resembles a wounded baitfish loosing and regaining consciousness, enticing weary but large predators to hammer it.

By using these simple techniques when the big guys are feeding on small bait, you just might up your big fish ratio considerably. The important thing is to think outside of the box and avoid “tying” yourself to conventional and traditional flyfishing methods. Be creative in your thinking and fishing, and odds are you’ll constantly discover new methods that will help you adjust to different and changing situations. While certain tactics, techniques and patters prove themselves over an over again, the next day, the next hour, or for that matter the next minute, the fish will react completely different. What makes a good angler is his or her ability to respond to these changes creatively. Think like a fish, try new things and you’re likely to be rewarded with larger fish even when they’re focused on small bait and are difficult to fool.

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