The salt ponds and estuaries of Rhode Island are host to an incredible annual event each Spring: the Cinder Worm “hatch.” The worms, which are 1 to 3 inches long and resemble a stubby Clamworm, wait for the water temperature and tidal conditions to line up just right and emerge en masse to spawn. They typically begin to appear toward low tide in shallow, dark-bottomed coves or muddy-bottomed areas of a pond and meet at the surface to spawn, moving in an erratic, often circular fashion to broadcast eggs and sperm into the water column. Often the first sign of a “hatch” is the appearance of Striped Bass feeding on the surface, taking worms with the grace and subtlety of a trout sipping a dry fly. The misnomer “hatch” likely relates to trout fishing, a common term to describe the mass emergence of an insect species from nymph to adult, and the sudden appearance of worms and feeding patterns of the Stripers is akin to a true hatch in trout waters.
Witnessing a worm “hatch” first-hand can be an exhilarating experience due to the sheer numbers of fish that can appear. At times fish will break over a huge area as hundreds upon hundreds of fish participate—it can look like a slam-dunk for any fisherman. With a steady, slow-moving food supply at hand, however, these fish are more likely than not to ignore any and all lures and baits presented. Fly fishermen often have the advantage, able to throw flies tied specifically to match the worms, but often the fly and presentation must be perfect. Often an angler will witness hundreds of fish, some mere feet from the boat or shoreline, and not be able to elicit a single strike. Of course this isn’t always the case and there can be incredible fishing during the “hatch” but the odds are definitely stacked against you.
There are a few ways to up the odds of successfully fishing a “hatch.” The feeding Striped Bass typically become completely focused on the worms and will not waste energy chasing a fast-moving lure such as a jig or popper. Swimming plugs are also often ignored even when retrieved slowly. The most effective lures tend to be either soft plastics for spinning gear or worm patterns for those on the fly.
Fly fishermen can throw worm patterns and slowly crawl them back. The most effective flies tend to float or sink very slowly, allowing a very slow retrieve, and matching the local worms’ color seems to play a huge role in effectiveness. The worms tend to have a dark head and body color can range from a muddy brown through red or orange depending on location and specific population. The retrieve usually consists of very short strips, only retrieving about an inch at a time, and trying to match the speed with natural worm movements. Flies are tied with a variety of materials such as marabou, buck tail, synthetic yarns, saddle hackles, peacock herl, or even materials like silicone or rubber. Buoyant material is often added to the hook prior to tying to allow the slow retrieve that is required to present the fly properly.
Spin fishermen often come off the water humbled and frustrated. The same fish that would enthusiastically take a jig or popper the week before are suddenly impossible to catch—while breaking by the hundreds. There is hope, however, with the use of light tackle and downsizing lures to match the worms. Many rods normally suited to freshwater, in the 8 to 12 pound range, can make it easier to toss small lures. Fish tend to be small and manageable on light gear, in the 14 to 20 inch range, though occasional 30+ pound fish are often mixed in to keep things exciting. Several products, such as the A-Just-A-Bubble fishing float, allow spinning guys to throw a fly. There is often a chamber that can be partially filled with water, allowing decent casting and low-profile presence in the water. A slow crawl back is usually the most effective and very small, rapid jigs of the rod tip during retrieve can give the fly some action. Some soft plastics, such as Slug-gos or unweighted rubber worms, can prove effective as well particularly if matched to the worms by color and size. The best retrieve tends to be a slow crawl along the surface, just fast enough to create a small wake. Carolina- or Texas-rigged weighted rubber worms, hopped slowly along the bottom, can also be effective though eelgrass and seaweed is often a problem. Once an effective technique is found the fishing can be absolutely outstanding but experimentation, persistence, and determination are necessary to find what provokes a strike.
Fishing a good Cinder Worm “hatch” is an experience that is impossible to forget- whether or not you can hook a fish. It can simultaneously be one of the best and worst experiences a fisherman can have- the numbers of fish surfacing can be incredibly exciting while the struggle to find effective lures and techniques can be absolutely infuriating. By experimenting with lures and technique, however, it’s possible to get on some of the most incredible fishing Rhode Island has to offer.