Fishing for Tarpon in the Palolo Worm Hatch

The evenings are long in the Keys and the sun had at last set behind the Marquesas when en we turned that last tarpon loose. Doug nearly cried at the thought that the battle had weakened the fish and that he might not survive. I was partially to blame for this as I had broken my longstanding rule of not bringing a fish on board if not intending to keep it, least of all for a photograph, and the tarpon had slipped out of our hands as we eased him back into the water.The sight of the fish lying motionless in the quiet clear waters of Bocca Grande stays clear and clean in my memory; more than six feet of fish, as long as a man, his silver sides burnished tawny-red by the last light of that wonderful sunset, lying, slightly head-up, as we scrambled to start the motor and edge closer to where we could grab and revive him.

The tarpon watched us with that great eye which is so distinctive of its species, a fathomless black, black pupil with gold surround, an eye that holds you whilst looking deep into your being. He lay there, watching, seemingly committing us to memory, and as we neared, he slid effortlessly beneath the surface. With a strong thrust of the tail, he disappeared into the darkening depths. All that remained was a wisp of vortex that spun and drifted slowly into the sunset, testimony to the fish’s passage and his well being. I have come to love tarpon with a passion, not only for the wonderful pleasure which the grant in fishing for them, but as a magnificent species. They are an ancient fish, hardly changed with the passage of the centuries, and which, even today–remain an enigma.

The first time you hear the quiet sighs of their breathing as they roll on the surface on their passage across the flats, will have you thinking that they are a school of dolphin. Your first sight of a pod of tarpon swimming straight at you in three feet of water, with individual fish weighing easily as much as a grown man, can have you trembling or leave you gasping in disbelief that creatures of such a size can spook at the shadow of a bird. Have them sip a fly into that awesome maw with the delicacy of an old brown trout and then explode with an instant mindless fury at the prick of a hook, and you will know them for what they are: fish of a terrible splendor and beauty.

Tarpon are migratory. They don’t live on the flats where we fish for them, but cross these, bound for some destination not all that well defined to us. Their migration starts throughout the Florida Keys around April. This is when thousands of tarpon begin the journey that takes them from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico, eastwards across the flats and northwards up the coast, with this great passage going on for months. And in the midst of this occurs one of the least known and yet most spectacular types of hatch that any fly angler in his wildest dreams could ever desire. Visualize waters alive with the biggest trout your imagination can conjure up, their backs breaking the surface as they cruise, feeding on nymphs hanging suspending in the surface film. All of us who flyfish have either experienced this or have read enough about it to be able to see it without much difficulty in our minds’ eye. The difficult part now is to transmute this image of trout into one of great fish, fish weighing into triple digit figures, fish so large and in such numbers that despite having been there and experienced it, I still have difficulties in comprehending and describing it, fish behaving for all the world like nymphing trout as the feed with quiet deliberation on hatching palolo worms.

What fascinates me about the palolo worm hatch and tarpon is just how little is known about it, even in America where tarpon fishing is a major fishing attraction, the subject of numerous magazine articles, and popular to the extent of having television programs, such as the Walker’s Keys Chronicles documenting it. I watched a video on tarpon fishing some years ago and one of the things it showed was fly anglers fishing what they called the “palolo worm hatch”. I had no idea at that time that I would actually become addicted to fishing for tarpon, so I put the Whole thing into mental storage. Capt. Doug Lillard, the Miami-based guide whom I was fortunate to meet on my initial trip to the ‘States, is a great guy, highly professional in his chosen field and willing to experiment and give of more than his best to ensure that his clients get the fish they are looking for. When you spend hours together out on a boat, the talk starts flowing and one of the many subjects that cropped up during those days of fishing and talking was the palolo worm and fishing during the hatch. Doug had seen the same video and had also wanted to find out more about it, and to fish it, so we decided to do just that. Now flats guides are canny people, not really given to sharing hard-earned trade secrets amongst each other, and there are not that many articles written on the palolo worm hatch. I know this for a fact as I spent time at the International Gamefish Association headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, researching information on this phenomenon, and was only able to turn up one article on these worms. This was one that Glenda Kelly, their marine biologist, located and faxed to me.

Nevertheless, Doug persisted, and faxed me this message: “Gottim! Found out where it’s happening and when. See you at the Worm Burner on June 2nd, 1996”. Doug’s a good enough guide and a good enough guy for me not to begin to question his judgement, so after almost nine months of getting it together, we were parked in his Hewe’s Bonefisher in the Worm Burner, right where the back country water flows out from under the bridges of Bahia Honda. Now I’m a good South African boy and I’m used to these good South African waters where, if any fish are on the run, they will met by about six million fishermen plus all their mates, just hanging around waiting to take full advantage of Nature’s largess. So when I took a look around and only saw two other boats in all that expanse of water, I started to wonder… The water was a bit discolored and fast running where it flowed from under the bridge, so we would be fishing blind while waiting for the action to start. Doug handed me a fly which the old writings told him would do the trick, and I got to work.

I love using big fly-rods and one of the outfits that Doug had on board was a real beaut, a one piece 9′ Kennedy Fisher in 13-weight. The rod matches up well with my Billy Pate Tarpon reel, and I then lost myself in the sheer pleasure of casing this rig. It allowed me to fire off linger casts with less energy than anything else I have ever used in the rod department. The hours went by with no fish–and then, all of a sudden, they were there. Wave upon wave of fish, all big, all single minded in purpose, this purpose being quite simply to eat as many of the palolo worms that had also suddenly appeared. The outgoing tide had been sweeping bits of eelgrass out from the backwaters and this had been going on for a while. What appeared to be different colored strands of grass started swimming, moving against the tide. One moment there was nothing and the next the worms were there. They were not in the thousands that I had been expecting, more like 20-30 per square meter of water surface, but the tarpon arrived and the party began. Well for them at least. There were thousands of fish, all big and all moving with a solid intentness of purpose, and they never looked at a single one of my flies. Put yourself in my position. What would you do? Right, I did it. I cast to fish and tried every retrieve I could. I changed flies, then changed them again and again, and cast I don’t know how many thousands of times. And Doug did the same. Not a single fish moved out of its path to look at our offerings. My log book, written when we got back to camp after fishing until late, with only a small light on the bridge providing us with illumination, recounts my frustration.
First day’s fishing at Bahia Honda, where backcountry water empties under bridge. Worm hatch started late in pm. With hundreds of big fish running and nothing working in the fly department. Stayed out late and then jumped five fish. Doug two and me three.
I lost a big fish when it scissored the shock tippet (bugger it!) and then had one cut the line as we tried to horse it away from the bridge pier. Exciting stuff, this, with big fish, big water, big bridge and heavy weather. Fish show no interest in palolo type flies, but took will on the Black Death.

The fact that we had such a positive response to the Black Death fly convinced us that we were going to get out there and really slaughter the tarpon the next day. Well, not quite slaughter, but catch and release dozens of fish and make a name for ourselves in the tarpon fishing world. We spent the morning hunting bonefish and Bahia Honda lived up to its reputation of not being a bonefish ground. That afternoon, filled with confidence, we took up position, the only boat there–and not a worm or fish appeared. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a strange situation, but not much seems to be known about the palolo worm/tarpon relationship and–in fact–in all of the material that is stored in the IGFA archives, there is only one article about flyfishing during one of these hatches, and that was written by Stu Apte in 1982. A few of the anglers we spoke to know about the palolo worm and could recount detail about its taxonomy and when the hatch should take place, but very few people–and that includes most of the tackle stores–could give us had and fast information as to where the hatch was taking place, or how best to fish it. Doug is like me, but even more so. His livelihood depends on how well he knows the species he fishes for, so the two of us set out to find out as much as we could about these elusive creatures. One of the persons we made contact with was Capt. Nat Ragland, a long- time guide in the Keys, who gave unstintingly of his time and knowledge of the Keys and how to fish them. A giant of a man, originally trained in the chemical industry. Nat has spent the past 25 years fishing and guiding in the Keys. He is the guide that you can see effortlessly gaffing large tarpon in Billy Pate’s video of fly rodding for tarpon, and was the originator of internationally known files such as the Dirty Nell, the Orange Quindillon and the Puff.

Nat has fished with and guided most of the major tarpon anglers in his time on the flats, and he gave us a wealth of information which was very close to that which Glenda Kelly, the biologist at IGFA headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, unearthed on our behalf. The palolo worm belongs to the class Polychaeta in the family Annelida, or segmented worms. The worm can grow to about 15 inches long, living in parchment tubes in the crevices among corals in the reef. The adult worms are predators, feeding on the small organisms that are found in the coral rock. The hatch in the Bahia Honda area occurs during the period of the full moon or new moon of late May or early June. The worms remain in their burrows during the day, and at night the anterior end protrudes into the water. During the night of the spawning, the worm backs out of its burrow and the caudal (rear) sexual portion, or epitoke, is torn from the anterior portion which crawls back into the burrow. The epitoke is usually half the length of the worm. Each of the epitoke segments, except the anterior two or three and the posterior thirty or forty, has a pair of much enlarged gonads. The posterior segments form which the gonads are absent, are smaller and different in color. The epitoke swims with this non-sexual portion foremost and in a spiraling movement. Major swarms always occur within five days of the quarter moon, with the first swarming of the year starting at the beginning of June at Bahia Honda. Swarming begins in the early morning, with the number of swimming individuals increasing until dawn. With the rising of the sun, the epitokes rupture, yielding up their reproductive products. The empty epitokes may swim for a short while, but they soon sink to the bottom and die. We figured, rightly so, that the bad weather had disturbed the hatch, so we packed our bags and the boat and set off for Key West where we took up residence in a waterfront suite at Pelican Landing. This is fishing at its finest: you walk out of your room, step onto the boat and off you go. I don’t mind, point fingers and say the man has gone soft–and I’ll agree with you. I’ve had my years of big seas and heavy surf and crashing through them on wildly bucking boats, or miles of walking down beaches in search of fish. Like they say, “Bin there, done that, bought the T-shirt.” Now that I’ve discovered the soft life, I confess to finding it highly addictive! Let me continue with extracts from my diary:

Tuesday, 4th, June: Morning spent at Sea Plane Basin, only three other boats out there with us. Water flat with a lot of sudsy-type foam floating about, and lots and lots of fish moving, but no takes. Went to Bocca Grande, again lots of fish–big ones– but all with lockjaw. Eventually hooked one on a Dirty Nell fly, a fish of about 90 lobs which took off on of run of at least 150 yards. We were using 40 lbs fluorocarbon tippets as the fish here were smaller and skittish, and then this behemoth appeared. A half-hour’s fight and a good hard run until shock tippet parted. Fished for rest of day, but no more takers.

Wednesday, 5th June: Run the 27 odd miles to the Marquesas. Only five other boats out on the water– unbelievable. Spotted some permit but not able to cast to them as moving fast. Only see four tarpon, so by lunchtime we are back at Bocca Grande Water strange, a glazed appearance with visibility not that good–red- colored clouds on the horizon. Clouds build up and it pours with rain in early afternoon, small waterspout starts right alongside us, a short sharp burst which quickly dies. The rain is a solid weight that goes on for at least half an hour…
After the rain came the palolo–and with them the fish. We had seen and cast to a lot of laid-up fish during the morning but nothing like this: thousands of huge tarpon like the trout at a hatch, they won’t look at any of our files=not even the special ones tied by the specialists at the Key West shops. Rain started between 3pm and 4pm with the hatch immediately afterward. Returned to Key West to fish Fleming Channel. Lots of big fish but no takers.

Thursday, 6th June: We did it! We’ve cracked the code and found the fly, code name Mongrel. Hatch started late and the fish want the Mongrel. They move out of their way to track this fly. Hooked my last fish at 7:15pm and landed it at 8:30pm after it opened a stainless lip gaff and almost smashed Doug’s ribs on the gunnel. Unbelievable how strong these fish are. Used the 13-wight and maximum drag and the fish towed the 19 foot Hewes Bonefisher with its load of two adults, a 140hp outboard motor, about 200 liters of fuel and all our gear. I only started to get the upper hand when I started fighting down and dirty, landing it as the sun set behind the Marquesas… What a day!

Friday, 7th June: The Mongrel works… Spent the morning rubbernecking around Key West and saw tarpon of over 200 lbs hanging around the docks and bait stations; my mind boggles. Out to Bocca Grande. Doug’s day to fish with me on the platform and I learn the hard way what he puts in for his clients. Hot day, water flat and only the occasional fish; palolo start moving as sun goes down–and with them come the tarpon. Doug jumped three, of which the first smashed at fly, the second jumped near the boat whilst under pressure from the hookup (as line released on the jump, so the line whipped around Doug’s arm and hand, swinging him right around before the line bust off), and the last fish just shook the hook… They eat the Mongrel. Run home to the teeth of a full gale with me lying flat and Doug, being the skipper, having to do the driving. Sure cheers me up hen he tells me that last year 94 people were killed on the flats by lightening strikes. Ask him to hold the rods but he won’t, but we’re happy… The Mongrel works.

I suppose I should now describe in loving detail what the Mongrel looks like and how to tie it, but no such luck. This is one of the most hard-earned trade secrets in the tarpon fishing game and nothing is going to pries it out of us.

Tell you what, thought. I’m going back to the Keys this year, right over the period of the palolo worm hatch, and Doug and I are going to have some serious discussions with tarpon. Then maybe, just maybe, if I don’t come back with my tail between my legs and the story of how we developed another fly and a different strategy, I will tell you more about the Mongrel… and landing fish as the sun sets behind the Marquesas.