Here we go again! That time of year I get very little sleep and lots of hours on the water chasing tarpon around the Key West flats. The spring tarpon migration is now in full swing with schools of large tarpon making their way along the ocean side flats and channels and congregating in Key West Harbor. For the next couple of months, life will completely revolve around the Silver King. Early morning launches to find feeding fish in the dark and slow rollers on those flat, calm mornings at first light, to late afternoon trips to find worm hatches, as well as fishing into the night to take advantage of tarpons’ nocturnal nature. It’s the hardest stretch of the year on the body and mind, but it is so worth it when tarpon are flying through the air.
Every year I look forward to tarpon season. After several months of cool temperatures and wind (and it was a long winter this year) I am more than ready for some heat and lots of big fish roaming the flats. I have already found tarpon a few times earlier this spring, putting a few in the air, but is has been very challenging to find them on a consistent basis and to find fish willing to eat. I don’t know which is more frustrating, finding tarpon that won’t eat, or not finding them at all. I suppose it’s more fun to beat them on the head with flies and baits to try and figure them out, than it is to run all over looking for them.
Now that we are in the prime of tarpon season, there is no question as to where they will be. It’s more a question of how the fishing will be. Will this year’s tarpon migration be a compressed season with large schools moving through every day? Or, will they kind of trickle through in small strings of fish and loners, with a big push now and again? Only time will tell.
The biggest factor, of course, will be the weather. Hopefully May and the first half of June will bring us light winds--we certainly deserve it. Or at least some flat, calm mornings during the favorable tides so we can fish for rolling and feeding tarpon. The first hour or so of light in the morning with no wind and rolling tarpon is, by far, the best time to be on the water, and I wish it could last a little longer. It’s so quiet and peaceful and we get to watch nature gradually wake up and get on with the day. Of course, the only thing that is better than this is tarpon exploding out of the water destroying all the serenity.
The largest and most popular event of tarpon season will occur later in May and again in early June. This is the palolo worm hatch, which occurs around the full and new moon at the end of May and the beginning of June. These hatches happen later in the day, closer to sunset, when tarpon will feed voraciously on the thousands upon thousands of tiny ‘worms’ heading out to sea on the falling tide to spawn. The ‘worm’ however isn’t really a worm, but a piece of the actual palolo worm, called the epitoke, which contains reproductive cells that are released during the mass spawn.
The worm hatch, fortunately, is mostly predictable since it occurs during the falling tide around the full and new moon. The exact day and place the worm hatch occurs isn’t always easy to nail down, as sometimes it happens a little earlier or later than expected. One thing is for certain; we will hear about it through the coconut telegraph or maybe Instagram.
I have had the good luck of running into minor worm hatches a few times over the years during off-times, completely unexpected. Every time I ran into one I’d ask myself, and my anglers for that matter (‘cause I like talking to myself out loud), “Why are all these fish acting so weird?” Then, after a short time, it’s like a lightning bolt would strike my brain. “Oh! It’s a worm hatch, duh!” It’s like hitting the fishing lottery and you’re the only winner. Cha-ching!
Tarpon won’t be the only game in town this summer. This is the best time of the year for the big three (tarpon, bonefish and permit) on the flats and for good opportunities at catching a flats slam. It’s also my favorite time of year to be in the Keys as I will get to enjoy a little of the fun as well. Not only will we have the best flats fishing of the year, many other awesome fishing, boating and diving activities will be had all summer long.
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