Hearing about Herring

Thanks to Dan Donarski for sharing his tips on where and how to catch herring in Michigan!

This isn’t going to be a tale of ya-shoulda-been-there. Because, as this is written, the “been there” part of the story hasn’t revealed itself yet. It will, though, any day now.

Rather this is more in the vein of “ya-better-get-there,” because once it starts to happen it is simply too much fun.

We’re talking herring here. That slim, silvery fish that is pickled, smoked, creamed, fried and broiled. All to raves.

We’re talking that fish that hovers around a pound, but three pounds isn’t out of the question.

We’re talking the fish that confounds us with sheer numbers when they won’t bite, and delights us when they do. For, when they do bite, the fight they give is more than a little scrappy.

Herring invade the waters of the Eastern U.P. from late June through July. This invasion of sorts generally begins off of the Les Cheneaux (some are reportedly being caught here already) and slowly moves east to Drummond and then up the St. Marys past Lime island and all the way into Lake George and even the Harvey Marina area of Sault Ste. Marie. They move with purpose, too.

The purpose for this movement is to feed. Feed specifically on the mayfly hatches, the bigger the flies and the more flies that hatch the better for the fish. Over the past week, smaller mayflies have been hatching in the shallows. What the herring are looking for are those that hatch in say 15 feet of water, maybe more. This should start to happen within days based on current water temperatures.

Now, it should be noted that herring also take small minnows. Les Cheneaux area anglers know this and use ultra light Swedish pimples tipped with a wax worm to good success just before the flies start to hatch. Seems the herring have the ability to predict when the hatches will happen and start to come in a few days before the flies get active. This is when the super small jigging spoon really does its magic.

Once the flies have started though, the herring seem to almost exclusively feed on them. Wouldn’t you? I mean, if you were a fish, wouldn’t it be a bit easier to grab a mouthful of slow moving flies than chasing down some minnow?

The technique for catching these herring when they are feasting on the flies isn’t all that tough. That doesn’t mean that you just have at it. There are some real needs.

Needs like having an ultra limber rod: the longer the better. In fact, a 9-foot fly rod in the six weight category is just about perfect. You’ll also want either a small fly reel loaded with no more than 6-pound test, and four is much better, or a small spinning reel. These fish may be small but they do run fast. A good drag is vital.

Why all this for a small fish? Well, herring have a very tender mouth. So tender that they make crappies look tough. Put a lot of beef to them and you will literally come up with lips only. Let the fish have his head and gently work him in.

At the terminal end, tear drops tipped with waxworms are a good bet. Even better are nymphs tied in black, yellow, brown or grey– the colors of the real nymphs– and then tip these with a waxworm. Herring seem to think this is a double meal and really go for it.

Some anglers swear by going out at night during the bug hatch and collecting their own real flies. These they string onto a tear drop or very thin smaller hook. By the baskets of fish these folks bring in, the method certainly works.

Remember that 9-foot rod. The length serves more than just acting as shock absorber. While finely-tuned floats work, the rod itself may be your best bet in detecting the delicate take that herring are known for. That long rod telegraphs the bite better than a shorter, stouter rod. Chances are you will actually see the twitch of a bite before you feel it, another reason for a long, limber rod.

Herring will swim at all depths, from top to bottom. If you have a fish finder you may seen different schools stacked one on top of the other. Your trick is to find which ones are biting best.

For some reason I’ve had the best success trying 11 feet down first. That seems, for me anyway, to be my bread and butter depth. If I can’t find any takers there I move up, one foot at a time until I can actually see my bait. Three feet down doesn’t mean it is too shallow. You can see that far down, and you may just see a school or two move through at this depth.

If nothing is up high, then it,s time to move deeper a foot at a time. The only problem here is that once you get within a couple feet of the bottom that world record herring you think you are fighting transforms itself into a simple old sucker. Suckers like it on the bottom.

Expect a bit of a crowd when the herring are in full swing. It reminds me of the old perch fishing days when rafts of boats anchored over favored perch fishing holes. It is also a lot of fun, too much fun almost.


Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.