Long live herring!


Unmoved by the seductive entreaties of crocus blossoms, returning osprey, even the first chorus of peepers, I’m not convinced that spring is here until the herring start to run. That’s when I draw my first thoroughly hopeful breath of the season, knowing that within a month or so I’ll be fishing — the one incontrovertible reason I live here.

I still love summer, which drew many of us here in the first place, and tends to glue us to the place in the long run, but my relationship with the Vineyard changed fundamentally when fishing became more than just another summertime activity. As a kid, I caught scup out of a dinghy off Lambert’s Cove, I trolled up bluefish on the Middle Ground on my dad’s Erford Burt bass boat, but when I came ashore, I was off to the next thing.

Then, in 1960, I was introduced to surfcasting by a new friend, who remains my closest friend today, 55 years later. Overnight, it seemed, the Vineyard took on new depth and substance, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Both the day and the season expanded for me, as did my circle of friends and acquaintances.

Now I was intrigued by what happened in the water that makes this place an island before and after the high season. Were there stripers here in May? And how long did they linger in the fall?

As for my daily routine, it changed completely after about 6 pm. I’ve never taken to daybreak fishing, but there’s nothing I’d rather do at the end of the day. To be wading in the surf, straddling the boundary between land and sea, while the western sky offers up its stunning light show and the dark slinks in behind it — with no one around — that’s religion.

Happy to skip stiff family dinners, I’d jump in my old Jeep wagon, maybe with a snack, and head up-Island to pick up my pal Herb. A half-hour later we’d be plugging the muscle shoals at Squibnocket, the huge boulder at Pilot’s Landing, or one of the pond openings along the south shore. Both escape and adventure, it was a wonderful new world to explore, including technique, gear, and knowledge of our prey — striped bass. I had a lot to learn, not least that the plugs we cast out and retrieved were intended to imitate smaller fish that bass like to feed on — like herring.

In June we sometimes fished the herring run in Gay Head, where bass congregate to gorge on the herring that drop back down into Menemsha Pond after spawning in Squibnocket Pond. I didn’t take to that technique, and don’t remember ever catching a bass there, but I’d been introduced to herring.

In these parts, river herring — alewives and blueback herring — move from salt water into fresh to spawn in April, early in the month if the water has warmed enough, later if it’s colder longer. When they get the urge, they will run a gauntlet of gulls, cormorants, osprey, and larger fish eager to ambush them on their way to spawning sites. Offshore, where they spend most of their lives, they are prey for seals, whales, and man. In the middle of the past century, the population of river herring was decimated by offshore seiners and pair trawlers, both foreign and domestic. For a couple of hundred years before then, access to their spawning grounds was steadily restricted by dams built across most rivers in New England. In Massachusetts, the public’s right to harvest herring has been protected since colonial days, but as time went by and dams went up, interest in herring waned.

In the past few decades, awareness of the challenges facing anadromous fish has increased, and some obsolete dams have been removed. And thanks to the efforts of a few enlightened fishery managers and an equal number of determined citizens, fish ladders have been installed at several herring runs along the coast. Some activists care because they appreciate the value of herring in the food chain, others because they want to do something tangible to rebuild natural resources that we’ve degraded over time.

Herring have supported me, indirectly, in my work as a charter captain and as an editor/writer for a fishing magazine. As my lust for the kill, never great, wanes to almost nil, it feels right and natural to support them in return.

So that’s why, these past few weeks, I’ve been doing whatever I can to abet the species’ efforts to do what they must to keep their line moving. You might call it bottom-down management: dredging, by hand, a channel in the sand and mud flat in James Pond, and pruning obstructive brush in Mill Brook and the Tiasquam River. Besides, I’m quick to put the bottom of my aching body down after an hour or two of that kind of work — exhausted but satisfied, too.

Sometimes I just wade onto the flat or stop by one of the streams hoping to see a slug of herring heading for home, or evidence of their passing — a mess of scales sparkling in the sunlight like tiny white lights on a Christmas tree in a dark December living room. If I strike out, I might just stay put, mesmerized by the light on the water and the bottom, the latter constantly being sifted into a million mini sandbanks that spin and roil the water into slurps and boils that, in turn, reshape the sinuous, shifting bottom, an endlessly dynamic process that I can stare at for hours.

I have to shake myself out of the spell, sometimes, remembering that I’m there for another purpose. It’s a simple mission, far removed from the controversial fisheries issues that too often pit one user group against another, users against resource managers, and managers against trained environmentalists and self-appointed stewards. It’s a comfort and a relief — and just plain exciting — to act as one when it comes to herring. There’s probably someone out there with a gripe — there always is — but it’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to the effort to make life easier for a fish that, first of all, helped those who came way before us subsist, and that today plays a critical, irreplaceable role in the continued health of the oceanic food chain.

Whit Griswold, 72, lives in West Tisbury. He was the proofreader for The MV Times from 2003 to 2015.