The Herring Blitz

“Look at that,” my brother Bill said. From where I stood on the stern of his boat I could see the whole show. The bass had a school of bait chased back into a shallow bay and were absolutely gorging on them. Baitfish were popping out of the water, desperately trying to escape the pack of predators. The bass quickly circled back to eat the wounded bait that was floating on the surface, and we were right in the middle of the feeding frenzy. A quick cast to the center of the melee brought immediate results.

Standard smallmouth tackle consisting of a 7-weight to 8-weight rod and reel combination works well during the herring blitz.

These particular bass were not stripers chasing after rainbait during a typical fall blitz, they were smallmouths. Behavior of blitzing smallmouths is best described in one word — violent. Much like their striped namesakes, they slam into schools of bait in small packs, and usually there are a few crippled or stunned baitfish that get gobbled off of the surface after the initial attack. Smallmouth blitzing is easy to spot. If you see dozens of baitfish popping out of the water, followed by the rings of surface feeding fish, you’ve found it.

Smallmouth Gorge On Herring
What type of bait causes a smallmouth “blitz,” you ask? In the rivers I fish in New York the answer is juvenile bluebacked herring (Alosa aestivalis) or American Shad (Alosa sapidissima).

Along the east coast, there are a number of large rivers that receive annual spawning runs of bluebacked herring and shad, which enter from the sea in the spring to spawn. In the case of the bluebacks, the herring deposit their eggs over gravel, and most of them do not survive the rigors of spawning. The gelatenous eggs stick to the bottom, and after hatching in the summer, the young herring ride the rivers back to the ocean in the fall.

The herring’s cousin, the shad, has a similar reproductive situation, the only difference being that the adults usually survive the stress of spawning.

As fall comes, and water temperatures drop into the 50-degree range, the ocean bound movement of the small shad and herring is triggered. Once the rivers cool, the shad and herring migrate back to the ocean. All along the way, they are preyed upon by many gamefish, but none are as effective at it as the smallmouth bass. The return run for the young herring usually gets going during the end of August or the beginning of September, depending on the weather, and continues through October on many rivers.

Herring Prevalent In The East
Bluebacked herring spawn in most of the major rivers along the eastern coast of the United States. Shad (American shad in the northeastern rivers) also enter many of the large rivers as well. Here in the northeast where I live, most of these rivers are also home to populations of big, hungry, smallmouth bass.

In Maine, the Androscoggen and Sacco Rivers get herring runs. In New York, the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers are the primary spawning streams for herring. The Delaware River (New York and New Jersey) does not get a heavy run of herring through the section where the smallmouths are prevalent, but does get a good shad run. In Massachusetts, the Merrimack River gets a herring run. The Connecticut River system in Connecticut also gets herring runs.

In addition to the major spawning rivers, there are a number of smaller streams that are either tributary to larger spawning rivers, or are small ocean tributaries where shad or herring spawn. The best way to get more information is to contact the fisheries management office for that particular state.

Equipment And Flies
Standard smallmouth tackle consisting of a 7-weight to 8-weight rod and reel combination works well during the herring blitz. Rods that have a stiff action are better for getting a good hookup on bigger bass. Most bass do not take off on long runs, so any reel that balances on the rod will do, and backing is not an important consideration for bass fishing.

Be sure to have a good weight-forward floating line, preferably in a bass taper, or saltwater taper to better facilitate casting the bulky flies that are needed to imitate the herring. A second spool loaded with a sink tip (medium-sink rate with a 10-foot tip) also comes in handy for smallmouth fishing during the herring blitz.

The author says catching bruiser-sized smallmouths whacking away at little bluebacked herring is a blast!

For leaders, short and stiff are the way to go. For fishing with a floating line, I use a 9-foot leader that ends in an 8-pound test tippet. On my sink-tip line, I use a straight leader of 8-pound test Cortland Camouflage line. I have not broken off any bass, even 18-inch to 20-inch specimens, using 8-pound test; the only thing that foils my fishing is the occasional pike attack. Anything heavier than that really isn’t necessary.

Flies Are Simple
Flies for fishing the smallmouth blitz are relatively simple. For surface fishing, there are three flies that I use. The first is my own concoction, using a spun and clipped white deer hair head, and a white fur body to get the bulk of a herring, with plenty of flash for the tail portion. I usually color the back of the fly with a waterproof marker in black or dark blue.

The second fly that I like is a downscaled version of the Blados Crease Fly. This fly is deadly on smallmouths in a variety of colors during the summer, and is great for the herring run in blue/silver and black/silver combinations. Saltwater poppers are also good for the bass blitz, but are harder to cast.

Smallmouths, even in the presence of the schools of small herring, do not always respond to surface flies. My favorite fly when they don’t want to hit on top is a blue/white Tom’s Tri Minnow. The fly behaves much like a Sluggo soft bait and is best fished on a sink-tip line. To get the correct action, the rod tip has to be held low, and moved side to side while the line is stripped in. The fly should move like a crippled baitfish, with side to side twitches, and pauses during the retrieve. The Tri Minnow is incredibly effective during the herring run. It’s so effective that my brother had me tie some for him to use with his spinning tackle. Streamer patterns also are effective during the herring run, and a simple blue/white or black/white Clouser’s minnow is an excellent fly for this type of fishing.

Some type of boat is essential for fishing the big smallmouth rivers. A fully-rigged bass boat is great if you have one. When I can’t fish with my brother, I have been successful from my kick boat, provided I can find a launch site close enough to the areas where bass and herring congregate on the river. Float tubes would not be very practical, because you often have to cover a great deal of water to find bass on the blitz.

Smallmouth Tactics
During the fall herring run, getting the fish to hit is not the problem. Locating them is the most difficult part of the proposition, and it is not too hard if you know where to look. For a fly fisherman, locating bass on a big river can be intimidating. It is not like reading one’s favorite trout stream. The obvious stuff — pools, riffles, and runs — are not there.

The first place to look for herring munching bronzebacks is the mouths of any tributary streams. The schools of small bluebacks rest and congregate in the creek mouths on their way to the sea. Bass also chase the little herring up into the creek mouths when they pursue them. Anglers also should realize that not all creek mouths are obvious. For example, I caught the biggest smallmouth I ever took on fly tackle in front of a 36-inch stormwater drainage pipe on the Mohawk River.

Another place to look for greedy, herring-eating bass are the flats. Most of the herring rivers are navigable streams. On these rivers, there is usually a navigation channel that is much deeper than the rest of the river, and where the river widens, there will be shallow flats along the edges of the channel. Shallow, rocky flats that run less than 10 feet deep are the best places to try. The bass chase the herring up onto the flats, primarily in the morning and evening when light conditions are not bright, and working these flats usually results in a few fish.

An Easy Meal
Turbines and migrating fish are usually not very compatible, and the little herring are no exception. Many of the young herring get dinged up on their way through turbines at power dams on their way to the ocean. There is one such spot on the Hudson River near the New York State Capitol where smallmouths stack up each fall looking for an easy meal. Other good areas include any place along a big river where the sea-bound herring get concentrated. The spillways of dams, or many other man-made structures are good places to try and fish.

Most big rivers have islands. We have caught some very good bass during the fall herring run on island points. Again, they are another area where predators such as smallmouth bass can run a school of baitfish into an ambush. On the Mohawk River, where I fish, there is usually a shallow flat near the islands, and the island points that are adjacent to these flats normally hold fish.

As fall comes, and other anglers start thinking about salmon or stripers, I think of bass. The fall herring and shad runs trigger the best bass fishing of the season. Catching bruiser-sized smallmouths whacking away at little bluebacked herring is a blast. The best surface fishing of the year takes place during the herring run, and it’s a lot of fun if you have a herring blitz on your favorite smallmouth river.

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