Category: Low Risk
THE HUMBLE herring is a highly popular angling species in Western Australia and the saviour of many a day’s poor fishing for those who wouldn’t normally target them. They are a highly cyclical species that sees good years and bad but most times an angler can catch a feed of herring in waters south of Shark Bay. Fortunately herring are normally quite prolific in the protected inshore waters of our southern coastline.
I have heard it said more than once that if a herring grew to five kilos or more they would be the most popular angling species by a country mile. That’s the measure of the fighting ability of this tough swimming and jumping mini sportfish. They are the mainstay of junior anglers and take baits or lures readily, and will bite on and off all day – what more could you ask for?
Most years around Easter time small schools of larger fish, often referred to as bull herring, turn up in Perth waters and are greeted warmly by anglers. These bull herring will range up to half a kilo and fight like a drover’s dog.
In South Australia and into Victoria the herring is called tommy ruff but it’s thought that they are all from the same single stock of fish.
At times herring are confused with young salmon but can actually be clearly identified by a bigger eye and black tips on the caudal fin. In contrast, juvenile salmon have a black blotch at the base of their pectoral fins.
At 843 grams and 41cm the Australian record represents an absolute horse of a herring. Most fish are caught at around 125g and 20cm, and a 250g-plus fish is classed as a bull herring.
Herring are distributed right along the southern and south-west coasts up as far as Shark Bay. As mentioned, they comprise a single stock of fish extending across into South Australia and Victoria.
Herring are a pelagic schooling fish generally found in inshore bays and estuaries over seagrass beds or near areas of weed-covered reef. They also cruise open beaches and enter southern estuaries, including the Swan River.
Breeding and migration
Herring are highly migratory with fish recruiting across from Victoria and South Australia to their spawning grounds in our southern waters.
Tagging has shown that some spawning migrations cover up to 2,000km. These spawning grounds are extensive too, ranging from Bremer Bay up to Perth. Spreading their spawning risk across such a large area of ocean could be one reason why herring numbers remain high. Spawning starts in April and extends into June. Fish mature at one to two years and live on average 4-5 years.
From May onwards, eggs and larvae drift south and east with the aid of the Leeuwin Current and westerly winds. Some are distributed along our lower west and south coasts, where they generally thrive and grow in protected bays and estuaries. Spawn also drifts right across to the east coast.
Herring eat mainly anchovies, pilchards and juvenile southern garfish. In turn, many bigger species prey on the feisty herring. Such is the way of nature.
Herring are caught commercially in WA, mainly for rock lobster bait. Anglers see this as a tragic waste of a worthy recreational species.
The latest VHS virus, identified in pilchards originating in California, poses a real threat to a range of species, not least of all the much-loved herring. This deadly virus is capable of affecting herring and develops in water temperatures of 15deg. celcius or less. Herring could well be exposed to it along our coastline in winter.
It is hoped that we don’t see a recurrence of the pilchard virus and God only knows why the Australian Quarantine Inspection Service (AQUIS) has not, at the time of writing, banned the import of these potentially diseased pilchards.
Much is at risk from imported baits these days and AQUIS needs to get moving on some of these issues or we could lose even more of our various fish stocks.
Tackle and bait
My preferred boat fishing outfit for herring is a flick stick with 2-3 kg line. This gear gives acrobatic herring a chance to perform. They have a knack of jumping and shedding the hook, and to offset this I drop the rod tip below the surface. Most times it works, but some will always jump off.
When boat fishing I don’t use a traditional herring blob, preferring to just flick an unweighted bait and enjoy the uncomplicated approach.
I favour a single long-shank hook with either half a whitebait, a piece of prawn or cut fish. I must confess to not being a serious herring fisherman, because I don’t eat them, but I do use them as live bait. Many keen herring anglers favour maggots (wogs), which are available in most tackle shops.
Luminous green tubing or coloured drinking straws have accounted for many herring, as have rawl plugs which are really inexpensive lure options.
If I was fishing from the beach a 6kg spin stick would be just fine. The extra line strength would cope with casting a blob, which is usually necessary from the shore.
Without doubt my favourite way to target herring is with lures. A small gold Halco Twisty is probably my favourite but any small baitfish replica will do. It just has to be small.
Berley is often an important ingredient for a hot herring session, and given that mostly I’m in a hurry to catch some I always use it. There are many excellent proprietary berleys available, but from time to time I’ve used bread or even crushed breakfast cereal with success.
The trick with any berley is not to over-feed the fish and not to have the berley drift away in the breeze, taking the herring with them.
Look for some reef or weed, preferably with white water not too far away, and try some exploratory casts. This is where lures are very useful.
When convinced that you’re in herring territory, start a berley trail – ideally unbroken. A little and often is the trademark of a good berley slick.
A moving bait will frequently prove to be the downfall of herring. If things slow down, try varying your retrieve – slow, fast, retrieve and stop, whatever.
Hutchins and Swainston Sea Fishes of Southern Australia Kailola, Williams, Stewart, Reichelt, MacNee and Grieve Australian Fisheries Resources Cusack and Roennfeldt Fishing the Wild West Compiled with the assistance of the WA Department of Fisheries, Research Division.
Art: Roger Swainston
Text: Ian Stagles