Unusual among other New York freshwater fish, herring are anadromous,
meaning they spend the bulk of their lives in the ocean and only
return to freshwater to reproduce. Each year they return, migrating up
large rivers in huge spawning runs.
The first to arrive are the graybacks, known to most people as
alewives. They come by the thousands, swimming the miles quickly and
darting past sluggish river fish just waking from their winter's nap.
Not long after, the tiny blooms of white shadbush greet the schools
of shad making their way upstream. Their silvery iridescent scales are
shaded with blue and green, the colors of spring. The shad come in
waves, strong with the tide, slowing only a short while to taste the
sweetness of the freshwater after the salt of the sea. They press on
north in the rivers.
Last to arrive are the bluebacks. They are greeted by the warming
waters of spring. The bluebacks seem to signal the lilacs to bloom,
which add their purple and white colors to the river banks.
The annual arrival of spawning herring has made them important
commercial and recreational fish species. Each spring fisherman head
out to catch their share of these tasty fish.
In New York State, the Hudson River is the largest river entirely
within state borders that is home to all members of the herring
family. Freshwater portions of New York's Delaware River also receive
herring runs, but only after the fish have traveled through bordering
states. In addition, limited alewife runs also occur in smaller
estuaries on Long Island.
Herring are silvery iridescent in color with hints of pearly white,
blue and purple, green, and yellow. They have large black spots on
their sides which contrast with the silver.
Herring are built for speed, slender and slick. Sharp scales
located along the edge of the belly give them their nickname "sawbellies."
While species of herring are difficult to tell apart, look close for
the details: a difference in body size, shape of the jaw, and size of
As stated before, most herring are anadomous, spending the bulk of
their lives in the ocean and only returning to freshwater to reproduce
or spawn. This ability to move between salty ocean water and
freshwater is no small feat, it is tremendous stress on their bodies.
The fish are here to spawn and do not eat for the eight to ten weeks
this process takes. Surprisingly, only a few never make it back to the
When spawning begins, millions upon millions of tiny specks of
golden-green eggs are released to drift with the currents. Adult fish
return to the ocean; no parental care is given either the eggs or the
young. Of the millions of eggs released, only a few will survive.
By midsummer, young herring look like small versions of their
parents. They swim together in huge schools where there is safety in
numbers. Often, these young herring swim along shore, moving in
response to the brightness of the sun. On calm evenings, they give
themselves away, leaping out of the water and snapping at tiny insects
at the water's surface.
As fall approaches and the rivers' water cools, these young fish
head out to sea. They remain there for several years before returning
to spawn in the water where they spend their first months of life.
Herring are plantivorous, feeding on the zooplankton (tiny animals)
floating in the water. Because of the small size of the zooplankton,
it takes millions of these critters to fill the herring up.
Specialized "combs" in the fish's throat (called gill
rakes) enable herring to strain the tiny plankton from the water while
swimming along. Larger herring eat other food as well, including
larger larvae, small insects, shrimp, and even small fish.
Ocean-run herring grow to a size that provides fun for the angler.
While the season is short, only six to eight weeks each spring,
anglers enjoy catching these fish.
American shad are the best known sport fish of the herring. They
put up a good fight when hooked - the trick is in getting one to
strike. The smaller herring - alewife, blueback herring, and hickory
shad - can also be caught on a hook and line, but more often are
caught by small scap (or dip) nets.
Most herring are highly valued by the commercial fishing industry,
with American shad the favorite food fish. American shad are sweet in
taste and the eggs or roe are considered a spring delicacy. Alewife
and blueback herring are fished commercially in the ocean and used for
The largest of New York's herring, American shad are very important
commercial and sportfish along the Atlantic coast. Their large size
and long jaw, which extends to behind their eye, distinguishes them
from other members of the herring family.
In the ocean, American shad are found along the eastern coast of
North America, from Florida to as far north as the Gulf of St.
Lawrence in northeastern Quebec. New York's shad are from stocks in
the Hudson and Delaware rivers and are part of what is called the
mid-Atlantic population. This population has a migratory range of
thousands of miles along the Atlantic coast.
In late spring, New York's shad head north along the coast to spend
the summer in the Bay of Fundy. Toward fall, they begin their
migration south, wintering off the coast of North Carolina and
Virginia. In spring, the northward cycle begins again. At this time,
adult fish that are ready to spawn split off from the main group and
head toward their home river.
The habits of American shad in the ocean are not well known. Shad
can spend up to four or five years at sea before returning to their
natal waters to spawn. It is thought that these fish move off the
coast toward the edge of the Continental Shelf.
During spawning, shad arrive in large schools, running up the
rivers where they slowly adjust to the change from salt to fresh
water. While a large number of American shad run up into the Delaware
River, the biggest run on the east coast goes into the Hudson River
Estuary. Historically, shad were also found in New York State's
portion of the Susquehanna River, as far upstream as Binghamton.
However, large hydropower dams built in the 1920s currently prevent
these fish from reaching this portion of the Susquehanna.
New York's American shad are highly prized by all fisherman. Hudson
River adults average 20 to 23 inches in length and five to six pounds
in weight. Shad up to 14 pounds have been taken by commercial
fishermen in the Hudson, but anglers have yet to land one of this
size. The current New York State angling record of an eight pound 14
ounce shad was caught in the Hudson River in 1989.
DEC publishes a "Guide to Angling of Hudson River Shad."
The pamphlet is updated yearly and provides anglers with information
on how, when, and where to catch shad. The most popular lure to use is
the shad dart, a small jig about an inch long with a fuzzy tail. The
darts are made in a variety of colors: white, bright yellow, or
chartreuse combined with red. Since shad do not feed in the spring, it
takes a bit of luck and skill to entice them to bite. The best Hudson
River shad fishing occurs from Kingston northward with the Federal Dam
at Troy being a particularly popular location.
Fishing for shad on the Delaware River is different than on the
Hudson River. Because the upper Delaware is much smaller and clearer
than the Hudson, shad are more visible to the angler. Casting small
spinners or kissing darts off the bottom of clear pools and runs is
often successful. Shad can also be taken by fly fishing. Best fishing
occurs in the lower East Branch and the main stem from Port Jervis to
Like American shad, alewife is an important commercial fish species on
the Atlantic coast. Adults average ten to 14 inches in length and
weigh less than a pound. Although they look similar to other small
herring, their large eyes and deep body easily identify them. Alewives
have a short jaw that juts out when the mouth is closed.
Spawning occurs in early spring when large schools of alewives move
into tidal waters from the ocean. These spawning runs begin slowly
with only a few fish at a time migrating in. As more fish arrive, they
remain along the shore in the main rivers. Spawning fish can often be
seen swirling about in small groups.
Young alewives are often hard to find, as they hide in weedy beds
and deep water during the day. Like shad, as fall approaches they
leave the estuary and migrate out to the ocean.
Alewives are found all along the eastern Atlantic Ocean from
Newfoundland to North Carolina. They follow the same general pattern
of migration as shad, moving north in early summer and south in the
fall. These fish spend two to three years at sea before returning home
to spawn. It is thought that they move off the east coast and wander
over most of the Continental Shelf.
In New York, a large run of ocean-run alewives occurs in the Hudson
River and its tributaries each spring. Smaller runs occur in tidal
creeks along Long Island.
Although bony, ocean-run alewives are valued for pickling by many
fisherman. In addition, scapping (or dip-netting) for alewives is part
of some people's spring ritual. Large square or round nets are lowered
into the creeks where alewives run and the fish are scooped up as they
swirl about above the net. For the conventional angler, a combination
of light tackle and a smaller version of the shad dart in white,
yellow, or chartreuse can be used to catch these fish.
Unique among New York's herring, the alewife has also developed a
separate landlocked form of the species. The landlocked alewife is an
important bait and prey fish in the Great Lakes, Finger Lakes, and
numerous reservoirs in New York State's inland waters. Details on the
landlocked alewife are found in a previous article in The
Conservationist, entitled Common
Prey Fish in New York. The article appeared in the
September-October 1992 issue.
Blueback herring are similar in appearance to alewives. Like alewives,
these fish have a short jaw, but unlike alewives, bluebacks have a
small eye. If a blueback herring is gutted, the black body cavity
lining is another distinguishing feature.
Blueback herring are the last herring to arrive in New York's
estuaries, from mid-May to June. While they used to be found only in
tidal portions of the Hudson River and its tributaries, in recent
years bluebacks have expanded their range (via travel through locks of
the Barge Canal System) to include the upper Hudson (above the Troy
dam) and Mohawk rivers. A few fish have been reported in Lake
Champlain, Oneida Lake, and some have traveled through to Lake
Blueback herring are found all along the eastern Atlantic Ocean
from Nova Scotia to Florida. They follow the same general pattern of
migration as other herring, moving north in the early summer and south
in the fall.
Bluebacks are also similar to alewives in that they spend two to
three years at sea before returning to their natal waters to spawn. It
is thought that they also move off the coast and use the Continental
Shelf as their home range in the sea.
Bluebacks are an important commercial fish along the Atlantic
coast. They are valued for pickling by commercial and recreational
fishermen alike. Scapping in the tributaries to the Hudson River and
in the Mohawk River is the main method of fishing for these ten to 14
inch herring. Angling can be successful in areas where these fish
concentrate, such as below any dams in mid to late May. In the Mohawk
River, young bluebacks have become an important forage fish for valued
gamefish such as smallmouth bass and walleye. Adult bluebacks in
spring make excellent bait for striped bass.
Although smaller, hickory shad are similar in appearance to American
shad with a lower jaw that noticeable juts out. They are abundant in
New England coastal waters and in the Chesapeake. They are not very
common in the waters in between, which includes New York State.
Each year, New Yorkers catch a few hickory shad, usually in early
summer in the lower Hudson River Estuary. It is thought that these
herring spawn in freshwater, but not much is known about how many
actually migrate into New York waters.
Herring and People
Herring are some of the few freshwater fish species in New York
State that have a commercial value, as well as a recreational value.
Since long before colonial days, people have used and relied upon the
large annual spawning runs of herring as an important source of food.
This remains true today, with the state's commercial fishery for river
herring and shad on the Hudson River.
While spawning runs of herring still provide us with recreational
enjoyment, as well as food, the years have brought many changes to
these fish populations. With European settlement and industrialization
along our river corridors came pollution. Even more devastating to our
herring stocks was the construction of huge cement hydroelectric dams
that greatly reduce the suitable spawning and nursery habitat
available to these fish.
One of the largest rivers to experience such effects was the
Susquehanna. Beginning in the 1920s, a series of dams were built on
the lower river starting at river mile 10 in Maryland. This
construction closed off one of the largest rivers used by American
shad. Historically, these fish traveled as much as 300 miles inland
from Chesapeake Bay to spawn at Binghamton, New York. With the dams in
place, fewer and fewer fish came back each year.
Realizing that a valuable resource had been lost, state and federal
agencies began to work with the power companies to see what could be
done to rectify the situation. They began a restoration effort to
bring shad back to their former range. A fish lift was built to move
spawning fish around the lower dam; however, few fish were left from
the original Susquehanna stock.
To enhance the restoration effort, young shad were stocked in the
Susquehanna River above Harrisburg, beginning in 1971. Over the years,
eggs have been collected from the Hudson, Delaware, Chesapeake and
several other river systems to provide young shad for the Susquehanna.
The stocking program has had steady success with increasing numbers of
adult shad now returning to the Susquehanna to spawn. Fish passage
facilities have been installed in lower Susquehanna at hydro
facilities allowing American shad to swim upstream
While the population of herring will probably never be the huge
numbers of before, it is encouraging to see that such restoration
efforts can have a positive effect. These efforts serve as examples to
show us that if we are going to succeed, private industry and state
agencies need to continue to work together in providing stewardship of
our valuable resources.