By Dave Anderson
Standing at the edge of the stream, full dark, fogged in. I heard the approaching sloshing footsteps of my fishing partner’s boots treading the marsh, no rods… still March. He stopped a few feet away and we listened. The wind came up from the northwest, driving the cool fog down the neck of my jacket, I hunched over and leaned away from the wind, I listened harder. The tiny freshwater brook ran through a series of riffles, humming a consistent pitch—babbling a constant rhythm. Then we heard what we were listening for; the splashy bursts of herring tails beating hard against the current, preparing to run the shallow riffle ahead. It’s a sound that’s as indicative of the spring season as Christmas carols are to the holidays; at least for me. This shallow run is imprinted on the instinctive DNA of every herring born in this waterway; I know this because the fish only run at night here; they’re too vulnerable in daylight and they know this. It makes this stream unique.
I’d heard it hundreds of times before, but this time the sounds of those herring powering upstream, sparked an epiphany—well, let’s call it a potential epiphany. The beats of those tails and the fish’s unwavering devotion to completing their spawning tasks sent my mind into a silent dialogue about instinctual drive, predatory behavior and the way we all typically fish a herring run.
These herring are born in the pond, then spend a good portion of their lives offshore in vast schools, their instincts call them back to the stream to spawn. Impressive doesn’t even begin to describe that drive to procreate. If there was a way to translate these instincts into human thought, it would probably be something more intense than anything we have felt. This, it occurred to me, should weigh heavily in how we fish a herring run.
When we are fishing near the mouth of a run, those herring are in the home stretch, after hundreds of miles and a whole year or more at sea, being pestered by untold numbers of predatory fish, diving birds, nets, seals… they run riffles and climb fish ladders, they surge through flood waters and leap obstacles and here we are throwing a lazy Danny plug. In a rush of inspired thought—admittedly augmented by the sudden exercising of the fishing part of my brain—I saw the light on fishing the runs.
I have always been one to fish away from the run itself, favoring a deep cut or prominent obstacle in the shoreline nearby, my reasoning was that predator fish could use these things as an ambush and they also forced the herring, which often run in very shallow water, to swim over or around an area that made them vulnerable to predation. It worked, but it never worked great. Then I thought back to a full moon night in early May, standing at the mouth of a run, making a few obligatory casts before moving to one of my more classic locales. I heard bass blowing up on herring—I clipped on a Danny—nothing, as usual. One of my casts was fouled with weed and I burned the plug in, about 8 feet off the tip a fish blew up on the skittering Danny, but missed. I tied on a 2-ounce Pencil Popper and worked it wildly in the waning current sent seaward by the herring stream. I hooked up on my first cast with a smallish bass, right around keeper size. I had a couple other hits, but passed it off as a full moon anomaly.
My herring run epiphany has since told me otherwise. The instincts of a spawning fish put that task above all other things and when they’re nearing the sanctuary of their natal stream, you can bet that they are going to run that predatory gauntlet hard and fast. Every cautious swirl I’d ever had while fishing near a run flashed across the screen in my mind’s eye. I always chalked it up to there simply being too much bait, but I have seen the light. Now I feel that it’s more likely that the bass were confused by atypical behavior. In a lifetime of hunting herring in the runs every spring, a slow, lazy herring just didn’t seem right. And so, they followed, but ultimately ignored it. In all aspects of my plug fishing I have long felt that mimicking the attitude of the bait was a key to success, somehow I had missed the boat here.
As we prepare to enter the herring season—in some places it’s already begun—my focus for this exciting time of year is going to be on plugs I can fish fast. Tops on my list will be the Sebile Magic Swimmer. Instead of trying to mimic some battered herring on its last leg, I’m going to be trying to channel that instinctual drive to climb the stream and get it on. Casting that swimmer out there and burning it in, throwing a big wake and daring any bass in the area to pass up on the chance to take it down. I think it’s going to work.
What do you think?