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Volume 15, Issue 22 ~ May 31 - June 6, 2007

The Worm Has (Re)Turned

It’s the rockfish version of an All-Night Chesapeake Seafood Festival

A week ago, I was totally prepared. Gifted with a placid Chesapeake morning, I had my skiff’s cooler full of live soft crabs; fresh, iced alewives; even a few eels.

A couple of days prior, Frank Tuma, a friend and local charter boat skipper (, had left word that he had been consistently finding hordes of ravenous rockfish along an extensive section of a particular Bay channel.

At dawn, my skiff neared that channel. My senses were electric with anticipation. As sonar marked off the depth readings, my screen lit up at 30 feet. Large fish were indicated everywhere, about 10 feet off of the bottom.

With trembling fingers I rigged my rods and deployed them. One outfit had half of a big, delicious soft crab on a 7/0 Gamakatsu. The second had a tasty piece of alewife with the accompanying innards, like a luscious frosting, wrapped around the gape of a razor-sharp hook.

The third had an eel, lightly lip-hooked and with just enough weight to encourage it to swim at the depth of the rockfish clustered on my sonar screen. Eels are called rock candy for good reason, and this one was lively and just the right size.

My bait layout was an opulent smorgasbord of striped bass delicacies. This was going to be gangbusters.

With no wind and just the beginning of a tidal current, I began a slow drift through a virtually endless school of impressive fish marks. This was the sweetest setup I had yet to have this season. There was no way I could fail. Or could I?

Fish Are Biting

The rockfishing has indeed been interrupted by the May worm hatch, but it doesn’t happen in all areas at once. Keep looking till you find hungry fish. Perch and croaker have been feeding on the worms as well, so don’t expect them to pick up any of the slack. Once again it’s luck and time on the water that will produce. The crabs are beginning to start up, but it’s still cool. Head way south for better action in every category.

My baits were ignored. Thinking at first it was a problem of depth, I adjusted my lines. Still no interest. Perhaps it was a matter of the right tide phase, I reasoned, as throughout the morning I freshened my baits and drifted the better areas.

The tidal current slowly increased, peaked, then slackened. Except for a scrappy 16-inch croaker that somehow managed to fit the enormous chunk of soft crab and the accompanying 7/0 hook into its undersized mouth, none of the hundreds of fish I passed over were the least bit interested.

I was baffled. It was the perfect setup: The fish were there; the drifts faultless; the baits couldn’t be better. I was right in the middle of a red-hot, May rockfish bite. What in the world was happening?

The Worm’s Turn

A clue itched at the back of my mind. What was it about May? Argghhhh — it suddenly dawned on me — it must be worm time.

These fish weren’t interested because they had stuffed themselves all night long with one of the most delectable (to them) tasty treats in the Bay: May worms.

You may not be aware of the teeming numbers of worms that live in Chesapeake waters. In fact there are millions, maybe even billions, of the mostly nocturnal critters. They range from the small but speedy quarter-inch arrow worm to a species of ribbon worm, Cerebratulas, that can reach upward of 10 feet, though most Bay specimens are well under that.

May worms, the likely culprit of my frustration, are one of our more common varieties. Living in the mud bottom, particularly around and among clam and oyster beds, they are a species of the genus Polychaete, so named (from the Greek meaning many hairs) because of the numerous tiny swim fans (parapodia) arranged the length of their sides.

Also commonly called clam worms (Nereis succinea), they only acquire the May worm moniker as they undergo a sexual metamorphosis during the month of May. Their two- to four-inch-long, tapered, tubular bodies assume a rich, red color, and their swim fans enlarge in preparation for spawning.

Swarming in countless numbers on the dark of the moon, they engage in their final mating frenzy over the Bay’s bottom. Rockfish love eating them to the exclusion of all else.

The worms are virtually impossible for anglers to imitate because the stripers gorge by hurtling, mouths agape, through the dense, swirling masses of spawning worms, swallowing dozens at a time. Any lure, even if it could be presented, would be lost in the crowd.

During daylight hours, the fish then hang suspended with sated appetites, their bellies swollen with the fruits of their escapades, awaiting the next nocturnal feast. It’s the rockfish version of an All-Night Chesapeake Seafood Festival.

The phenomena will pretty much shut down all angling opportunity in an area — as it did for me — until the swarming is over.

But nothing stays the same in the varied splendor of our Chesapeake. A normal bite will eventually resume, though in the meantime it may be quite frustrating.

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