Pacific herring and northern anchovies are closely related, they are in the same family and share several similarities. Both are:
- Small bait fish — herring commonly reach 6-7 inches, while anchovies are a little smaller.
- Found in large schools sometimes called “bait balls.”
- Caught using similar fishing techniques.
- Popular bait for salmon and halibut.
Christian Heath is an ODFW marine fish biologist who has caught hundreds of Pacific herring for research purposes using the same techniques described below. While most anglers target herring and anchovy to use as bait, he also recommends this fishery for people new to fishing – the action can be red hot (hooking up to 6 fish at one time), the gear is simple and the technique is easy.
1. Herring and anchovy are popular with big fish.
Herring and anchovies are popular baits for salmon and halibut anglers. Buying frozen fish at the bait store can get expensive for guides and avid anglers, and herring/anchovy fishing can be a fun way to save some money.
2. They can make a tasty meal for people.
While these small fish are better known as bait, more people are discovering they can be delicious for humans as well.
Historically, Pacific herring were an important food for First the Nations, and were valued as a food source by European settlers during the Gold Rush. They were commercially canned during WWI, and harvested by new immigrants through the 1950s.
And then they fell off the human consumption radar for several decades. However, renewed interest in the culinary uses of these small bait fish has uncovered a host of ways to prepare these fish, including smoking, pickling, grilling and frying. A quick search on the internet will turn up several recipes – pick one that sounds good to you.
3. You can catch a lot.
The limit for herring, anchovy and other bait fish is 25. That’s 25 pounds. Better bring a big bucket.
If you’re not going to be processing your fish for a few hours, they might do better in a cooler with some ice.
4. The gear is simple.
A simple spinning rod and reel setup with 10-15 pound mainline is all you’ll need.
5. The tackle is simple, too.
Most anglers use pre-tied herring rigs called a sabikis. These are heavy monofilament leaders with a weight on one end. Between the weight and end of the leader are six (usually) small hooks branching off the mainline. Each hook has a small flasher or jig to catch a fish’s eye.
You can buy pre-tied sabiki rigs, often called herring rigs, at most marine tackle shops. Because the hooks include some kind of flash, bait isn’t necessary. (Though some people do like to add shoe peg corn to each hook.)
You’ll want to add a weight to the bottom of the rig. A one-once weight, maybe a little more in rougher conditions, will help get the rig down to fish level.
6. You can fish from a boat or from the dock.
If you’re fishing from a boat, use a fish finder to locate the herring schools. Herring and anchovy are schooling fish and hundreds of fish may school together in large groups called “bait balls.” Once you find a school, drop your herring rig and start fishing.
Sometime the schools of fish gather near docks, jetties and piers where they’re catchable by shorebound anglers.
7. The technique is easy to master.
Once you’ve located a school of fish (read more about that below), either cast to it from the dock or lower your rig from the boat. Start reeling it in while slowly twitching the rod. Don’t set the hook and land the first fish you feel on the line. Instead, continue a steady twitching retrieve to attract more fish to your rig. It’s not unusual for herring and anchovy anglers to land up to four to six fish at a time.
8. When fishing is hot, it can be active and fast-paced.
When the fish are biting, you can catch up to six fish at one time on a sabiki rig. And while the fish aren’t very big, reeling in multiple fish at one time creates its own kind of excitement.
9. Great for beginners.
The gear and technique are very simple, and the action can be fast. If you want to introduce someone to fishing, this can be a great way to get them hooked (pun intended).
When to fish
In Oregon waters, herring come into the bays and estuaries to spawn twice a year – usually near Valentine’s Day and then again near St. Patrick’s Day. Though in recent years, the runs have been a little later.
Anchovies spawn a single time in the summer.
Where to find fish
Pacific herring and anchovy can be found in Oregon bays and estuaries that have the right spawning conditions – rocks, eelgrass, kelp and seaweed that can hold the eggs in place. Given those requirements, the best fishing tends to occur is a few locations.
- The best herring bays for fishing are Tillamook, Coos, Yaquina and Umpqua bays.
- Anchovy anglers can fill a fast bucket in Brookings Bay at the mouth of the Chetco.
Once you’ve arrived at your favorite location, look for a swarm of feeding birds. The large herring and anchovy bait balls attract cormorants, guillemot, auklets and other diving seabirds to enjoy some easy pickings. If you see a large group of birds hovering over and diving into the water, chances are good it’s a school of bait fish attracting their attention.