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Herring

One of the primary baitfish in Alaska and frankly the world is the herring.  Though I think "baitfish" is a bad rap as they also, to me at least, are one of the tastiest fish in the sea!  They are oily and bony but smoked up or grilled, they sure are good!  

WHY??
Most people think I am catching herring for bait.  The truth is, the herring you catch doesn't make very good bait without some special handling.  Did you know that bait herring is handled MUCH MORE carefully than any food herring?  It is a lot of work to make good bait herring.  They are often netted, then transferred live into holding pens.  There they are "starved" so they lose fat content making them firmer but more importantly it helps keep the scales on the body.  Then many times they are harvested and placed into water with carbon dioxide or something to quickly dispatch them to keep the scales from falling off.

The herring we often catch while jigging during the summer is well after the spawn and so the fish are super oily.  That means they taste good to eat, but are often soft with no scales making them not so great for bait.  You can brine them to firm them up.  I think they would make GREAT bait for pike, burbot, even halibut.  But I bet they aren't as good for trolling applications.

Because they are bait fish, you can eat them, use them for bait whether it be fishing or for shrimp or crab bait.  So since we won't be wasting them, the best reason to catch them is they are fun to catch!  Sabiki rigs have anywhere from 6 to a dozen hooks.  When you get multiple herring on a single drop, they will pull back fairly hard.  They don't make a run since they pull in different directions.  But its a blast.  Some of the herring I have found in deeper waters can be as large as a decent sized trout! 12 inches or better I would guess. 

The picture below, I am using my steelhead/silver float fishing rod with a 1 oz weight.  I think I had four small herring but you can see the rod flex fairly hard!  


Where and When
The most consistent place to catch herring is in Whittier.  When the fish processing plant is running, they discharge the fish waste out of a pipe that comes out near the ferry dock.  You will see people casting from shore but its MUCH easier from a kayak or a boat.  I think its usually going fairly well in Mid June.

I have found schools of large herring in Resurrection Bay.  Often times they are deep but they can be huge!  Homer I am sure they are there.  But in Homer I have dropped sabiki rigs over several "clouds" of baitfish and never caught a herring.  I think they must be sandlances or smelt of some kind.

How

In Whittier, they are always in the same spot.  But moving even a dozen feet can often make the difference.  The easiest way to find herring is to look for birds on the water.  Obviously if they are actively feeding, all the better.  To really effectively fish herring, other than in Whittier, you need to have a good fish finder.  

Fishing is easy!  Clip a weight to the end of the sabiki rig and cast out!  Count down and see where you are getting your hits.  You can just drop it straight down and jig, but I seem to get more hits as the rig is free falling.  One thing I will say is that if you are looking for quantity, use a heavier sinker than you might think you need.  2 oz is good.  The heavier weights keep the rigs from tangling whne multiple fish are on the line.  It also drops faster meaning it is in the zone faster if your goal is to catch as many as you can.

They sell sabiki rigs at most sportfishing stores here in Alaska that sell fishing gear.  I think the smaller the better in that the baitfish can be very small, a couple of inches, to trout size.  The big fish eat small plankton, copepods, and other little critters like the little ones.  So using smaller sabiki rigs means I can catch them all.   Here's a link to Hayabusa Sabiki rigs one of the better ones I have used and some good instructions.


One of things to keep in mind that herring aren't the only fish attracted to the processing waste.  We catch lots of small pollock and cod as well.  The pollock tend to be below the herring so I recommend fishing the top 15 ft of the water column if you find yourself hooking up to lots of pollock instead of herring.  It's not the best video but here's an underwater shot of the spot I fish herring in Whittier but its a bunch of pollock at the bottom:

Underwater in Whittier by the Ferry Dock




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