February 29, 2024

Hardcore Game Fishing

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The Plight of Southern New England’s River Herring

As anglers, our year is often full of with those madeleine moments when something as simple as a gust of wind or a passing smell can send our brains tumbling deep into the nostalgia of seasons past. You probably did not realize the connection at first, but for the rest of your life, that simple northeast blow or the smell of the first fallen leaves will forever subconsciously trigger the memory of when you hooked your first big bass or saw your first pod of albies go ripping by. These moments build who we are as anglers, and they are very often the first logbooks many anglers keep. They remind us that the window of productivity has been opened and it is time to pack the gear and hit the water; this was the case for me during prolific river herring runs in years past. As a surfcaster, I quickly learned to love and embrace these immersive moments since they often led to my most memorable nights of the year and further solidified those moments into my mental logbook. 

Ironically, it wasn’t until I began keeping my own physical logbooks that I realized just how important these subtle cues had become for my drive and success as an angler. As I began wading through my grey matter and reflecting upon the formative years that created these memories, I often took a moment and relived them with great fondness. The day that the marshmallow-like smell of a blossoming tree coincided with the first shallow-water stripers of the year; the time that the first migrating monarch butterflies of September flew into my field of view over an acre of finger mullet and striped bass. It quickly became clear that these memories had become happily intermeshed with my senses and there has not been a day that the smell of marshmallows or the sight of a monarch butterfly hasn’t immediately triggered this sixth sense.

As I take the time each season to unwrap these moments, there is one such occurrence every spring that stands out above the rest. One such subconscious trigger that creates a feeling of electricity through my veins and has me scrambling out the door like a madman occurs when the first truly warm night in late March coincides with a steady rain and the sound of spring peeper frogs. This is my favorite moment each year as an angler, immediately taking me back to the base of a coastal Connecticut dam in 1996. That was where I watched in utter amazement as a wader-clad fly angler landed a 36-inch striped bass from the dark melee of white water and spawning river herring. As a six-year-old, this was the polarizing moment that created not only the angler I am today but also instilled the love and respect for our fish and fisheries resources that I continue to bring to work as a now-33-year-old fisheries biologist for the state of Connecticut. 

Alewives can begin running in small numbers as early as mid-February, but they often show up in appreciable numbers around the end of March when water temps reach between 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

As a river- and surf-based striped-bass enthusiast by night and a river-herring biologist by day, this subconscious trigger is the moment I know the river herring are starting their spring migration and a new season of chasing striped bass is upon us. I quickly grab my gear, jump into my truck, and drive down to the same nondescript pull-off on the dirt shoulder of the state highway. Like clockwork, the sound of car tires quickly rushing by on the wet asphalt and the blinding lights of oncoming traffic reflecting on my rod blank bring me right back to my early years as a herring-run rat. I have done this walk every spring since I can remember and the warm rain and spring peepers singing lull me into a state of pure bliss.

I keep my rod low and dress casually to keep others from seeing what I am up to as I carefully step over the guardrail, dodging poison ivy and hearing the all-too-familiar sounds of trash and those terrible plastic alcohol nip bottles crunching under my feet. This is not pretty fishing; this is being stuck in the thorn bushes while underhand flip-casting in the tight quarters of a stream so small the average Joe never sees its presence when driving by. I am wet, overheated, cramped, and if I hook that bush off to my right one more time, I may actually go cut it down, but there is a magic to this place. A magic that can only occur in the presence of river herring and striped bass. A magic that cannot be truly understood unless you’ve watched your father hook and land a 30-pound striped bass on largemouth bass gear from this very same pool two decades earlier.

There is a problem on this night, however. A problem that is nothing new and a problem that is only getting worse. You see, the issue with these moments of reminiscing is that they rely on history to repeat. As a river-herring biologist, I am sad to say that history has stopped repeating on this most wonderful night of the year in southern New England. On this particular night, it is again very clear to me that the herring are not going to show, and that no 40-inch bass will be hiding in the culvert waiting for them to swim upstream to their spawning grounds.

Schools of alewives swim upstream toward viable freshwater spawning grounds.

As I wait for the telltale signs of herring splashing and stripers crashing them into the muddy shallows, I reflect on the past. I remember the good times when my father hooked that giant bass in two feet of water on the old Browning Reflex rod.  I remember hooking bass so large that they straightened our hooks and broke our rods. I remember river-herring schools so thick I thought for sure I could run across their backs. I remember these times so clearly that I can still smell the oily aroma of herring running up the stream and lying on the banks; however, these times are over. At this stream, they ended around the time I graduated from college in 2011. Sadly, this is the reality we now face with river-herring runs here in Connecticut, and it is a reality that brought me back after grad school to join the fight to restore these fish in 2018. 

River Herring Migrations

Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) are two closely related (and very often hard to distinguish) species of anadromous herring that are collectively referred to as “river herring.” The anadromous life history of these species is defined by an adult life phase that lives at sea and a spawning and juvenile growth phase that occurs in fresh water. Growing no larger than 12 inches and weighing less than one pound, river herring can be found from Florida through the St. Lawrence River in Canada. In Connecticut, these fish may live up to eight years and spawn as many as four times during their lives.

Alewives are the first to show up and may begin running in small numbers as early as mid-February in a very warm year, but they often show up in appreciable numbers around the end of March when water temps reach between 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and remain in our waters until mid-May most years. Blueback herring begin showing in Connecticut around early to mid-April, and they can still be found in larger rivers into June most years. During the spawning, hatching, and growth phases, river herring support large numbers of fish and wildlife that feed on the adult and juvenile stages of these species. In southern New England, it is common to see large numbers of predator fish and wildlife species using these runs in the early spring and again in the summer and fall when the offspring migrate out of the ponds and rivers enroute to the ocean. In Connecticut, blueback herring persist in the larger coastal rivers and some smaller streams while alewife runs dominate the small coastal streams and ponds.

When compared side by side, alewife (shown above) have larger eyes, darker streaks on pectoral fins and a bottom tail lobe that extends further than the top lobe.
Blueback Herring (shown above) share habitat with alewives and look very similar at a glance.

Connecticut’s River Herring

Currently, river herring do not support any fisheries in Connecticut and taking them has been prohibited since a complete moratorium was put in place by what was then the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection (CT DEP) in 2002. This moratorium enacted following the massive population crashes of blueback herring seen in the Connecticut River between 1992 and 2001. In response, the CT DEP shut down all forms of harvest and began monitoring many coastal streams and larger rivers with electronic fish counters and video monitoring systems. This effort continues today and allows staff to track population trends and create index sites for future comparison. Additionally, the stocking of pre-spawn adult alewives to streams and ponds with extinct or greatly depleted runs was initiated to utilize open habitat and build up coastal runs across the state. CT DEP biologists also continued working with partners and property owners to address fish-passage issues that prevented these fish from accessing historic spawning habitat above dams. 

Signs like these can be found around the state in areas that once received strong herring runs.

Sadly, we have continued to watch the Connecticut River blueback herring run drop from as high as 630,000 fish in 1985 to a cripplingly low number of 283 fish in 2022, and we have seen coastal alewife runs continue to plummet despite periodic, short-lived rebounds every few years. When I began working with what is now the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP) in 2018, I was hopeful. True, I had watched these runs diminish from being herring choked in the early 1990’s to empty by 2011, but there were some small victories that kept me positive.

We had managed to increase alewife stocking numbers from a few thousand fish a year to over 30,000 fish a year, and the responses were positive. We watched these runs quickly respond from a few hundred fish each spring into the tens of thousands over three short years. Unfortunately, blueback herring numbers continued to fall. Then, in 2022, I watched with great sickness as our remaining alewife runs dropped by nearly 90% across the state. The feeling of defeat and dread fell over everyone who works with these fish in Connecticut, and the search for answers continues every day in our office.

In 2022, the numbers of fish in remaining alewife runs dropped by a dreadful 90 percent statewide.

As I walk back to my truck, I feel the warm rain running down from my lucky hat, over my cheeks, and into the corners of my mouth. It is at this point that I realize my smile has dropped and the excitement of another spring herring run has dropped with it. I face the reality that I am no longer 6 years old, but instead a 33-year-old man on the side of the highway struggling with the reality of this once important night.

I somberly toss my wet plug bag into the passenger seat and gently place my rod in the back of the truck, and I start to think about what my next move will be at work on Monday morning. Will I address the largely misunderstood at-sea mortality of river herring as bycatch in commercial fishing operations? Will I continue to work with our crew of seasonal staff to keep streams and fishways open for the few remaining river herring that will be arriving elsewhere this week? Or, will I funnel this energy into working with our partners to remove more dams and restore more habitat? The reality is that I will do all of the above, but on this night, I decide it’s time to spread the word and try to reach out to other recreational anglers who also miss these fish.

It hits me how important it is for anglers to reconnect with these fish again and start putting eyes on the streams of southern New England next spring. As an angling community, I think we can again remember to love, respect, and advocate for the return of these all-important harbingers of spring. I want this because, more than anything, I want other anglers to feel the excitement I felt on that rainy night in March when the frogs were singing, and the herring were running. 

That’s the funny thing about these moments of reminiscence … you can’t create them if you are not out there fishing and exploring. As I pull my truck out onto the highway to head for home, I know for certain that next March and every March after that, I will be out there in the thorns and poison ivy tossing plugs and looking for that next great run of river herring because, let’s face it, we can’t love and protect what we don’t remember. 

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The post The Plight of Southern New England’s River Herring first appeared on On The Water.

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