[Be sure to click through all the images in the gallery above.]
The surface was alive with thousands of tiny worms darting under the lights in erratic circles. Stripers rolled on the surface as far as I could see. I’d stumbled upon something epic: a hatch of cinder worms, perhaps the most fascinating, mysterious and simultaneously frustrating phenomena in Northeast saltwater fishing. Not only are the stripers that feed on them incredibly hard to fool, the hatch itself is elusive.
When it goes off though, it might be the ultimate experience in Northeast light-tackle fishing. It is the only time when conquering a 40-plus-inch striper with a 1-inch bait is a possibility.
Cinder worms are a polychaete (many legs) in the Nereis genus, which also includes the more-familiar sand worm (Nereis virens) and the common clam worm (Nereis succinea).
There are hundreds of species of Nereis worms. What we call cinder worms (Nereis limbata) are generally one to three inches long with an off-color — usually olive — head and a pinkish body. But their size, shape and color vary, not only in different regions, but from salt pond to salt pond. Cinder worms are fairly immobile, so at each location, they have evolved differently, and hatch under varying conditions.
Hatch or Spawn?
Like all Nereis worms, cinder worms are mud burrowers. When conditions are right, worms develop a tail paddle, releasing all but the segment of their body containing the reproductive cells. They swarm to the surface, releasing their sperm and eggs in a frenzy. The adults then die, and fertilized eggs drop to the bottom.
Technically not a hatch but a spawning phenomena, the moniker has stuck nonetheless, for obvious reasons, as the sudden emergence of the worms closely resembles a hatch of aquatic insects.
While their range is uncertain, anecdotal information suggests significant cinder-worm hatches from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine, with the bulk of the activity in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Hatches are a spring event in most places, occurring in the dead of night, with some exceptions in Rhode Island and Martha’s Vineyard, where they can occur in late afternoon.
The consensus is that hatches happen from May to early July. Yet, in one of the few studies on Nereis limbata, Frank Lillie found swarms in Woods Hole from June to September.
Cinder worms spend most of their lives in the mud, thus hatches usually occur in salt marshes. Lighted areas definitely attract hatches. Lillie found during his study that cinder worms moved toward the light of his lantern.
Long Island guide Paul Dixon looks for tidal outlets, noting that the strong currents are what start the hatch. “It’s a survival technique to distribute the fertilized eggs,” he reasons. The current carries the emerging worms, and striped bass set up in spots stemming the tide to pick off the worms.