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How to catch herring

Herring

The Talk Sea Fishing Guide to catching herring, not a common species anglers go out and deliberately target but it is great for eating, a decent bait and a nice have on the species list. Check out our guide for catching them from the boat and shore.


About the Herring

Herring may not be classed as a sporting fish noted for its fighting capabilities, but having a little knowledge of how to catch them when opportunities present themselves is well worthwhile. They’re a target for species hunters annually, and are also an exceptional bait, both fresh and frozen, for all manner of predatory fish.

They are also very good to eat and are the fish used to make kippers. They were on the human menu at least 3000-years before Christ. The herring was a very important commercial catch pretty much all around the UK from the mid 17th Century onwards right up until the early 1920s when catches fell away very quickly. During this time they were called “silver darlings”, and in European waters “silver of the sea”, the silver references their bright silver bodies as they are taken from the sea.

There was even a battle fought over herring, this being in 1429 off Rouvray, France when French forces tried to disrupt a convoy of fish and arms intended for the English. Nothing changed there then!

Herring identification

The herring is a flat-sided round fish with a rounded belly. The lower jaw juts out further than the upper jaw. The gill covers are not ridged. The tail fin has a more shallow V shape than deep and narrow.

When handling a herring, their scales, which are large for the size of fish, are easily displaced and stick to your hand.

The two species most likely to be confused with the herring are the sprat and the shads. To ID the Herring from the sprat, check the dorsal fin position regarding the pelvic fin. On the herring, the dorsal fin is clearly in front of the pelvic fin when a vertical line is drawn between the two. On the sprat, the dorsal is slightly behind the pelvic fin. Both the shads have a definite and obvious notch in the middle of the upper lip, whereas the herring does not. For the record, the anchovy is a much more slender-bodied fish, and there should be no confusion as a result, plus they are not a common catch on rod and line.

In deeper water, herring have a blue tinge to the back, through silver on the flanks to a silvery-white belly. If you look loosely at the gill covers and the flanks and move the fish so the light catches it, you’ll see flecks of gold and rose tints appear, too.

Size wise, the herring has been recorded to 1.5lbs, though this was more likely during the heyday of the herring pre World War 2. Nowadays, a herring of a genuine pound is a massive fish. Their average current weight is from 4ozs to 8ozs.

Herring

Herring distribution

The distribution of herring covers a narrow band of the North Atlantic taking in the northeast coast of the USA, Newfoundland and the east coast of Canada, the southern tip of Greenland, the southern half of Iceland, and the whole of the Norwegian coast right round into Russian waters. They are also common throughout the Baltic Sea, off the coast of Denmark, Holland, France and down through the Bay Of Biscay as far south as Spain and Portugal.

Herring are resident all around the UK, also fully around Ireland with noted hotspots in the North Sea, Irish Sea, Off Cornwall and Devon, and throughout southern, western and northern coasts of Ireland. The herring were once prolific off the Welsh coast and are now returning in good numbers, which is good to see.

Regards breeding and spawning, the herring writes its own rules. The different herring stocks around the UK spawn at different times producing spring, summer, autumn and winter year classes. The individual herring shoal breeds all at the same time. Each female can produce 10,000 eggs, which after fertilisation by the male, these eggs fall to the seabed and attach to weed, rocks and any other seabed structure. The eggs can take over a month to hatch in the spring and winter, but in the summer and autumn when sea temperatures are higher, it can be as little as ten days. The young herring have the advantage of a small yolk sac attached to feed them through the vulnerable time until they reach a length between 10 and 15mm. The sac is then absorbed, and the fish becomes reliant on its own wits. They reach sexual maturity at about 10cm long and some two to three years old making them very vulnerable to commercial overfishing.

Herring season

It can be said that herring are caught throughout the year, but it depends on the locality. Different shoals of herring show different migration patterns, bringing in some seasonality. Still, in most areas, there is a spring run from February through to June, and an autumn run from September to December in many areas. That said, herring can be caught in the north of Scotland and off the north coast of Ireland virtually all year round, though they can at times be more localised in their distribution.

Herring habitat

Herring inhabit the whole water column and can be found at varying depths and almost right up to the surface. They tend to drift deeper by day, but rise in the water as light levels fall towards dusk and in the dawn time period. There is a natural rise of plankton as evening draws in and this stays near the surface until light levels begin to increase as dawn breaks when the clouds of plankton go back deeper. The herring feed on the plankton and follow the same path.

The herring shoals can be found over most seabed strata, but herring do seem to prefer a rocky seabed when closer inshore, and tend to be in depths of more than 50-feet, but they can sometimes be caught shallower, especially towards night time.

Herring can be found in depths from 20-feet down to over 1000-feet, but are normally found between 50-feet and 300-feet.

Herring diet

Their diet is very simple. Most times of the year they will be feeding on plankton and krill, but like most sea fish they are also predatory and will take other tiny baitfish that happen their way. They never drop to the seabed and feed off the bottom, so their total diet seems to be plankton and very small fish taken within the water column.

Boat fishing

Tides

It’s rarely written, but herring like some tide run. They can often be found between the mainland and an offshore island, also around headlands where a tidal flow is deflected, and in the flow of tide that runs around an exposed reef or surface-breaking pinnacle of rock. The TSF team has also caught them inside the Menai Straits between the two bridges where the tide is ultra-fast even on smaller neap tides.

Generally speaking, offshore in deeper water, they can be caught on any tide size, but they will be higher up in the water column on the neap tides and closer to the seabed when the tides are bigger and with a faster tide run.

To define this better, we’d suggest fishing close to structures such as reefs and pinnacles when the tides are smaller neaps, and fish the bigger tides when you’re out in open water over a generally fairly even seabed.

During individual tides, expect the herring to be higher in the water column during slack water periods, but drop tighter to the seabed when the tide is flowing at its peak.

Fishing in the Menai Straits

Weather patterns

Rougher weather will push the herring shoals out into deeper water. The best fishing is when the sea is calm, and the weather settles for a few days. In short herring like high-pressure periods and move closer to shore, the longer the calm seas last. They also like clear coloured seas, not seas filled with sediment disturbed by storms.

Some wind to increase the speed of the boat drift can be good as it helps you cover more ground and find the fish quicker. Days, when the sea is flat with no wind, means you’re covering very little ground, and this can be an issue, especially just after prolonged rough weather when you have to first find the whereabouts of the fish.

They can be caught on bright sunny days but tend to be deeper in these conditions. The better days are the more cloudy ones when light levels are lowered, bringing both the plankton and the herring up in the water column and making them more active.

Herring also tend to swim into the tide, and when the tides are light, they swim into the direction of the wind.

Tackle

If you’re just catching herring for bait, then any 12lb/20lb boat rod will do the job, but use a toughish reel loaded with 30lb braid as you may need to bully 4 or 5 hooked fish up to the surface at once, then lift them on the feathers.

If you want to enjoy a little more sport with the herring. It’s better to drop down to a maximum of 3 feathers on a rig and use a lighter 6lb boat rod about 7ft 6 in to 8ft in length. Alternatively, a 2oz spinning rod works well in conjunction with a smaller 4000 sized fixed spool loaded with 15 to 20lb braid.

The TSF team also like the Tipster/Continental type boat rods with a very soft tip section. The 9ft ones are perfect! These allow you to “feel” your way through the water column and the soft tip cushions the herring take, which can sometimes be reluctant to take a larger feather lure. Also, the soft tip just gives them that little bit more time to take it in before you feel the bite.

A good technique with the Tipster rods when after herring is just to let the tip naturally bounce lightly with the boat movement as it dips in the light swells. This is a much better and more natural presentation of a small baitfish shoal than aggressively moving the feathers up and down on the rod tip three or four feet as you would for mackerel, which is not a natural motion for smaller baitfish.

Feathers and lures

An easy mistake to make when selecting feathers for herring is to assume they feed like mackerel. Not true! Herring prove to be much softer feeders as they take the lure and tend to tremble the rod tip when taking feathers rather than launch an all-out attack as mackerel do. This means that smaller feathers or lures they can easily take in are better for hooking multiple herring.

The best feathers are tied to smaller size 6 to size 10 hooks. The feathers or lures need to move easily in the water when worked too, so only choose those tied on lighter branch lines (hook lengths) of 20lbs or slightly less.

The feather lure itself should be no longer than 15mm in length. We also carry feathers with a body of 10mm length and these tiny feathers will often take herring in full strings when slightly larger ones only take the odd fish or foul hook them.

Herring Rigs

The colour of the feathers can also be important. Good ones are the tinsel type wings in silver and gold, especially if the hooks are gold chrome. Other lures that work well are the smaller feathers with wings made from natural fish skin. These can be deadly in all water conditions. Another good tip is to colour one of the feathers in a string of four with a black marker. This can often pick out the slightly bigger herring in a shoal that will mostly be of even sized fish.

If the above lures have a “hot” head, this being a head whipping from a bright fluoro orange, green or yellow whipping thread, this can really help get bites.

Another great set of lures to have with you are the Shakespeare Mini Shrimp Lures with a luminous green fish-shaped body and a tinsel tail. These work in water that is carrying some colour after bad weather, but come into their own when you’re fishing towards dusk and the plankton and herring are coming ever upwards towards the surface. Again the way to work these lures is slowly, and not lift them too much looking to imitate a very small shoal of tiny fish.

Herring Rigs

Technique

Catching herring is pretty easy if you get the basics right. This most critical thing is first to find them. We’ve seen how they adjust their depth in the water column to higher or lower light levels and to the strength of the tide, so this is the starting point.

Normally you’ll be boat fishing during daylight, so the best strategy is to start working the feathers up above the seabed about 10ft. If you don’t find the herring here, come up another 10ft. Do this each drop until you find the shoals. Herring adjust to the light in the water very quickly and even a shift from grey overcast skies to a sudden break in the clouds to let the sun stream through can see them drop deeper. Likewise, lift if it’s the other way around and sunny skies suddenly become cloudy.

Lifting and dropping the rod tip 4ft or more and at speed is not the way to catch herring. Reduce the rod tip movement to no more than a couple of feet and lift and drop the rod tip more slowly. This slower presentation is far more successful in targeting herring.

If you count down in your mind by seconds to gauge the depth the herring are swimming at, then you can return to the same depth every drop to maximise your catch.

Top tips for boat fishing for Herring

  1. Instead of using a small weight, if you have a small chrome coloured jig up to say 4ozs and just 3-inches in length or so, then use this instead of a lead weight. The flash of the jig will help draw herring in towards the feathers.
  2. When using the Shakespeare Mini Shrimp lures with the lumo bodies, charge the luminous effect by leaving them out in the sun, or better still using the flash on your camera, or the beam from a UV torch. This is a much more efficient way to charge them and means the charge effect will last much longer and work better and more brightly when you’re fishing in deeper water.
  3. Herring respond to luminous green in the water, so fishing a lumo green lead weight is also well worth trying if you’re looking to increase catches or just initially find the herring.

Shore fishing

Much of the information discussed above applies equally to any herring you catch off the shore.

Season

Again, it depends where you are within the UK and Ireland and when the herring in front of you normally spawn. Generally speaking, the herring shoals are usually closer to shore during the late winter and early spring, and again in the autumn through to Christmas.

In parts of the north of Ireland and north of Scotland where deeper water is very close to shore, there is a greater chance of early summer herring. The shallower the water, the more likely it is to look for the colder weather for the best results.

Where to fish

Look for safe access to deeper water. This will mean rock ledges mostly, but herring will often shoal in deepish water around breakwaters, piers and jetties.

Regards rock ledges, look for areas where there is a headland that sticks out from the general coastline and fish the down tide edge of this where the tidal flow is stronger. Also, try a few casts into deeper bays and concentrate on areas where any tide flow is funnelled, such as tide races between the rocks and an offshore island. However, on the latter marks, the herring will tend to be deeper in the water and favour swimming over rougher ground.

From breakwaters, harbour walls, piers and jetties they will be in the deep water, and it’s just a case of casting different distances and fishing different depths until you find the fish.

Tides

Tides are not overly important. In the deeper water off rock ledges, then the smaller neap tides are often the most productive with the shoals slower to move on. On the bigger tides, the shoals can be present for just a few minutes then disappear, though other small shoals may happen along periodically.

From breakwaters, and other man-made structures, the smaller neaps again often see the best action as the water depth is more constant and the herring may stay in close proximity for much longer.

Normally you’d expect the best of the fishing to be during the middle tide period when the flow is a little faster and the fish more mobile.

Weather patterns

Always look to target herring when the weather pattern has been calm for a few days with flattish seas and a fairly steady high pressure. The herring move closer inshore with the high pressure, but will drift back out as the barometric pressure starts to fall again.

Try to fish the cloudier days if you’re in shallower water as the herring will be more likely to be there. Bright sunny days suggest a shift to much deeper water venues such as rock marks.

Winds off the land that flatten the sea are ideal, but in deeper water some slight swell is ok, but rougher seas see the shoals move out.

Tackle

The majority of anglers want to catch herring for either bait or the table, so a normal 12ft to 15ft beachcaster and either a multiplier reel or a fixed spool reel loaded with 30lb braid has the power to lift three, four or five fish at once. 3oz leads are often enough for this fishing meaning you can dispense with a shock leader, but if you need say 4ozs or more to get deep enough in a tidal flow, then add a shock leader of 60lbs to allow for the weight of the lead and more powerful casting, that is if you’re fishing heavy duty feather rigs made from heavy breaking strain line over 40lbs that can take the pressure of casting with heavier leads.

If you fish no more than three feathers, then you can fish much lighter and go for a 9ft to 10ft spinning rod casting 2ozs, with a 4000 sized fixed spool reel loaded with 20lb braid. 2ozs of lead will be enough, sometimes you can go lighter, and you don’t need a shock leader. On this type of tackle with a light lead, the herring can give more of a fight.

There is another way to target single herring, and we’ll look at this in the technique section below.

Feathers and lures

The feather lures are the same patterns as you’d use for boat fishing. However, remember that these will be tied on relatively weaker core lines, often just 20lbs, so make sure you use lead weights that suit the breaking strain of the core line used to tie the rigs. A rig tied on 20lb line should only be used with 2oz leads or less, equally a rig of 30lbs with 3oz leads or less.

All the previously quoted colours of gold and silver winged lures work well. And again, look for smaller lures on size 6 to 10 hooks with hot heads to get the fish biting. Size 10 hooks are a good all-round choice.

In shallower water, the TSF team have found that red and even black feathers can be killer colours, especially when the water clarity is gin clear. Be prepared to change feathers if bites are not forthcoming, and especially if you feel the small nibbles of herring gently attacking the feathers, but they don’t seem to get hooked. This latter scenario is common, so make sure you keep ringing the changes until you find out what they want.

Technique

Whether you’re fishing from rock ledges, breakwaters, harbour walls, piers or jetties, the technique remains pretty much the same.

Begin by casting out and letting the lead weight drop to the seabed. Count the lead down through the water column. A good way to do this is to use “photograph 1, photograph 2” and so on. Saying “photograph 1” takes about a second. This is not a precise science, but you can expect a 3oz weight to fall through the water column at about 4-feet per second, depending on the thickness and length of the line the lead is towing, so you can use this to roughly guess the depth too.

Begin by lifting the feathers up off the seabed and working them back slowly using a lift and drop action of the rod tip, while also retrieving the resultant slack line. If you count down to say 8 but don’t find the fish, on the next cast count down to 7, then 6 getting shallower as you go until you find the fish.

Try to keep the retrieve speed as slow as possible whilst still keeping the feathers moving forward. Short lifts and drops of the rod tip are best. Long upward sweeps do not give the herring enough time to take the feathers.

Spinner and fly method

Another technique can be used to target herring individually. This is a 1oz chrome or gold coloured spinner, the Abu Toby or a Koster is ideal. Other spinners will work, but they need to be flattish spoon types and wide so that they sink and flutter down slowly.

Take the treble hook off the spinner and replace it with a small size 8 swivel attached to the split ring. To the swivel tie on 10-inches of 8lb fluorocarbon. To the fluorocarbon, tie on a size 8 to 10 Bloody Butcher trout fly, or any other fly with a silver body. We cut the wing off the fly to just leave the silver body.

A normal 8ft to 9ft spinning rod capable of casting 2ozs of lead is ideal for working the light lure, and a 3000 sized fixed spool reel loaded with 15lb to 20lb line. It’s also advisable to add a short 6ft section of 15 to 20lb fluorocarbon as a short shock leader and avoid the braid’s stark colour tied directly to the spinner.

The spinner is cast out and left to sink until you get to depth. Now retrieve the spinner in very short and slow bursts along with a short lift and drop of the rod tip. Let the spinner re sink between lifts for a couple of seconds. The herring are drawn to the spinner’s flash but then see the fly and take it without hesitation. You can also swap the fly for a small section of fresh herring which can work equally well.

Herring metal lure rig

Top shore fishing for herring tips

  1. Try using coloured lead weights, especially lumo green, yellow and white, to draw the fish’s attention to the feathers. This is well worth doing and can add extra fish to the catch.
  2. Some of the smaller feathers come tied as 6 lures on the one string of feathers. These feather rigs can be cut in half as hauling in 6 herring at once is not most people’s idea of fishing. Three feathers are more than enough to get a good fill of bait and a few fresh herring for the table. You also get two rigs for the price of one!
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