Give the herring its due. It may weigh less than a pound, but it’s one of the most important fishes in the sea.
This simple fish may be best recognized as a pickled treat savored around the holidays or, perhaps, as bait for stripers, blues or even tuna. But these silver-bodied winter visitors also serve as one of the most vital links in the local saltwater food chain. They flood into our bays and harbors by the millions during November and hang around through March, feeding on plankton and smaller baitfish while hoping to avoid being consumed themselves by larger predators.
“They really have a lot of pull for such small fish,” says Joey Leggio, 43, a retired New York City fireman from Oceanside and longtime herring fan. “Not in the traditional sense of a tug at the end of a line, but in terms of their drawing power. Atlantic herring are the focus of just about every predator in the sea from diving birds to seals, sport fish to whales.”
And that of local anglers who catch thousands of them each winter from Long Island’s piers, beaches and bulkheads.
MANY REASONS TO FISH
Leggio does most of his herring fishing at Magnolia Pier on Long Beach’s bay side. He’ll freeze a few dozen to use for bait come spring, but he’ll also pickle some for a treat. “Herring are bony,” he notes, “but the smaller bones soften up when prepared and these fish taste great. I just bought a smoker, so I’m hoping to try them that way this winter, too.”
Joe Cascio, 20, also of Oceanside, loves herring fishing for the fast action. He works at Long Island Outdoors, a rod and gun shop in Rockville Centre, and also frequents Magnolia Pier. He gives most of his catch to family, throws a bunch back and saves a few for bait. He doesn’t eat them. “I just like to catch fish,” explains Cascio. “On a good day you’ll pull herring three, four, five at time. It’s a lot of fun.”
For Harry Garrecht, 26, of Northport, herring provide a “fishing fix” after most other fish have left the area. “They get you outside and down to the dock, usually with friends you haven’t seen since the stripers left town,” he says. “It’s not so much the catching that’s fun as it is the camaraderie. Even if the fish don’t bite, I still have a good time.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Herring are usually caught with spinning rods and multihook rigs weighted by a small sinker or diamond jig. Known as sabiki rigs (available at tackle shops), these feature four or five tiny hooks, each sporting a little bucktail or soft but flashy attractor. Simply jigging the line up and down causes the rigs to shimmy like a school of tiny baitfish — a sight ever-hungry herring simply can’t resist.
“The key to success,” explains Leggio, “is to not overthink things. Just cast out and jig your rig back with slow lifts of the rod. If that doesn’t work, jig slower. If you hook a fish, reel slowly and two or three more should strike the other hooks.”
“It’s really not hard to catch a bunch of herring,” continues Cascio. “The hardest part is finding the fish.”
“And warding off the cold,” adds Garrecht. “The people who catch best tend to be the ones who dress warmest.”