On The Bayfront
We think of winter fishing about the first week of December. Actually, we start around October or November, during the height of the bluefish and striper season. Most department stores think it is "after sea son" and put most fishing gear on sale. We won’t tell them they’re wrong – promise. We stock up on herring rigs for the cold winter season. These rigs are made of monofilament line with six to seven small hooks attached. Small lures are attached to the hooks or the lines. These lures range from feathers, tinsel, small plastic shrimp to shiny plastic strips, or any combination thereof. Some folks, especially those from European countries like to add twisted bows of aluminum or "lure lugs," which are small neon colored glow sticks. Actually, the best performing rigs are those that are home made.
At the end of the rig is a space for a small sinker to be added. The sinker is usually one or two ounces in weight. Enough is needed to "hold the bottom." No more, no less. These rigs are generally not cast out. They are dropped to the bottom of the water and then bounced up and down. Herring are attracted to these rigs and eagerly bite onto them. Since herring run in tight schools, it is not unusual to catch "doubles, triples or quadruples." That is what all the hooks are for.
Herring fishing is very popular in Rockaway, especially on Beach 6th Street and the Rockaway Inlet. Herr ing size can range from eight to fourteen inches. Most of the fishermen there are of Russian or Ukranian decent. The funny thing is that I don’t see them fishing at any other time of year there – until herring come along. I learn how to dress from these folks. They know all the tricks in the book for dressing properly for the cold weather. If you see a person with a fishing line that has bent paper clips and tin-foil bows attached to the line which is then wrapped around a beer can, you’ve met up with a "Ruskie" as we call them. They’ll outfish you too.
Herring are frozen and used as bait for spring bass and blues. Herring are also smoked, creamed, pickled and fried. They are a delicacy for most Europeans.
The specific species of herring in our area is the blueback herring. An anadromous (migrating up rivers from the sea to breed in fresh water) fish, the blueback herring spends the great er part of its life in salt water and re turns to fresh water to spawn. It usually spawns later in the spring than the alewife, when water temperatures are a bit warmer. During spawning, many eggs are deposited over the stream bottom where they stick to gravel, stones, logs, or other objects. A few surviving, spent fish move back to the sea after spawning. Young fish usual ly move to sea when about l month old and 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. Bluebacks feed on plankton, various small floating animals, small fish fry, and fish eggs.
Herring eggs, larvae and juveniles are preyed upon heavily by other fish such as flounder, cod and skates.
One great thing about winter fishing is a chance to see the sun set over the Atlantic Highlands rather than over the shores of Jamaica Bay. The sunsets are very beautiful there too.
Also, it is not uncommon to come across a harbor seal basking in the warmth of the sun. They follow the trail of herring. If you see a seal, you know herring is around. Sometimes the seals scare the herring away, but they do return. Seals are commonly sighted on the shores of Rockaway, especially the ocean side. Don’t try to approach one as they are not used to humans. Enjoy watching them from afar.
Another great thing about winter fishing is the great deal of whelk shells we find. These large shells come up on the beach after fall and winter nor’easters. These shells are wonderful as ashtrays and planters for small plants, such as "hens and chicks." We have them scattered throughout our gardens. The minerals from the shells slowly leach into the soil and are good for the garden. Slugs tend to avoid areas where these shells are because the salts are deadly to the slug’s moist flesh.
The whole family fishes every winter for herring. They are very easy as well as a lot of fun to catch. Just be prepared for the elements and have extra clothes with you just in case. My daughter Hannah can out-fish the best.
At the end of the day we are all tired from lifting the pole with three and four fish at a time, but the air is fresh and clean and the people are very friendly.