Out of the mud, into a frenzy
Island anglers and naturalists will watch the thermometer, the sun, and the ponds every day between now and the new moon on May 24.
They are waiting for tiny cinder worms to rise from muddy bottoms in saltwater ponds across Martha's Vineyard in an annual spawning that leads to a feeding frenzy of astonishing proportion, drawing striped bass, birds, fishermen, and onlookers.
Phil Cronin of West Tisbury has observed the worm spawn for the past 20 years and its power and mystery continues to fascinate him. Retired from his position as head of USO New England, he now runs a fishing charter business.
Although he may be a professional fisherman, Mr. Cronin's voice has the excitement of an amateur when he describes the five-day event. "It's just an amazing phenomenon," he said. "You're really seeing the full cycle of life in nature, a mating ritual in the midst of foraging predators, right in front of you."
Mr. Cronin and other anglers know what happens, and mostly where and why, but never exactly when the surface of Tashmoo, Poucha, Sengekontacket, and other Vineyard ponds will roil with hundreds of thousands of two- to four-inch spinning, wriggling worms. But they do know that the worms will attract a sea of feeding striped bass and a swarm of birds. Not far behind are fishermen like themselves who are drawn to the fascinating natural scene and the possibility of hooking dozens of stripers in a single night. "The water is swirling and dimpling, fish tails slapping and birds paddling around dipping and grabbing worms as fast as they can," he said.
As Mr. Cronin described it, a combination of warming water and bottom temperatures from spring sunlight triggers the emergence of the cinder worms (phylum-Annalida, family-Nereidae).
The worm spawn is really a race to procreate amid predators. Rising to the surface, the worms engage in a spinning, circular mating dance until they find a mate, females releasing eggs, males releasing sperm, which covers the eggs as they sink back to the muddy bottom. After spawning, the remaining adult cinder worms die and their offspring burrow into the mud to wait for the next spring cycle.