Dropback Herring

A few weeks ago, while taking my afternoon constitutional with the dog along Ropes Beach, I witnessed the weirdest example of a massive biomass I’ve ever seen on the Cape. The fall is a particularly fecund time of year on the water, with the baitfish balling up into a tight concentrations that are assaulted over and over by blitzes of bluefish and striped bass fattening up before their southern migration for the winter. Usually the baitfish are immature menhaden, also known as “peanut bunker” but what I saw that afternoon on the shores of the cove was, in my opinion, a school of immature river herring, or alewives, also known as dropback herring because they drop back into the sea following their anadromous cycle of birth in the inland freshwater ponds and maturation in the deep sea.

The spring herring run is a classic event on the Cape, occurring in mid-April around the time the forsythias bloom.  During that run the adult alewives swim in from the deep ocean up to the very heads of the saltwater estuaries, lured in by some mystical genetic marker that leads them to seek out the same sweet waters they were born in. The fish then jump and wriggle their way up the coastal streams, over concrete fish ladders and other obstacles, dodging gulls and people with nets to finally made their way to some inland pond to drop their eggs and milt. These runs used to produce prodigious amounts of fish in colonial times, not so much any longer, and the state has imposed a ban on the taking of spawning herring for a number of years now.

What I saw, beginning at the footbridge and extending a half mile along the entire curving shoreline to Handys Point was a band of tiny black fish — minnow sized — that extended from two feet from the water’s edge out about 12 feet — a big long, moving black band of a gazillion tiny fishies all finning and pointing in the same direction, occasionally erupting when something disturbed their peace. Why do I think they were herring?

1. The week before I saw a steady stream of little black smolts swimming out of Little River.

2. Peanut bunker are distinctively shaped and these were not peanut bunker.

3. I’ve heard that herring like to circle the shorelines of the ponds in a big schools following their hatch. These fish were tucked right up on the beach, in the shallows where the sun could warm them.

Cue the video for a vague sense of what I saw. It’s not an exaggeration to say I walked past 20 solid minutes of fish during that sunny stroll.



Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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