Herring and Alewife Species of New York (Upstate)

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About Herring

Herring parts

Herring are small oily fish of the genus Clupae, commonly recognized by their silvery scales and single dorsal fin. They are often found in large schools in oceans, with some species swimming up major freshwater tributaries to spawn. The Alewife, although commonly a saltwater species, is also found in many of the freshwater lakes of New York State. Herring that are either landlocked or return to freshwater rivers to spawn are commonly referred to as Shad.

What to look for: Small fish (rarely more than a pound), with silvery scales and a dark back (usually with a hint of blue). The dorsal fin is only one lobe and it has no stiff spines. The tail is forked. The herring we have in the waters of upstate NY, also have a serrated keel along their belly.

The details presented below generally represent adult specimens, not juveniles.

Click here for New York State sportfishing regulations

Fishing Books and Guides

New York State Herring & Alewife Identification Guide

AlewifeAlewife
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Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)

AKA: Freshwater alewife, Sawbelly, Mooneye, Shad

Identifying characteristics: A small silvery fish with a darker, somewhat greenish-blue back. The eyes are large, and the mouth is small. The dorsal fin consists of one soft-rayed lobe and the tail is forked; both are usually dark in color. A dark spot (often called the shoulder spot) is present just behind the gills, above the lateral line. A serrated keel is present. The best way of differentiating a Blueback from an Alewife is to gut it; the Alewife’s interior lining is gray, the Blueback’s is black.

Size: Averaging 6 inches in length and weighing under a pound. Marine Alewife can grow twice as big.

New York State record: none kept.

Habitat: Marine Alewife school in the deep waters of the Atlantic and will run up the Hudson and its tributaries to spawn. Freshwater Alewife will inhabit the deep waters of New York’s larger lakes and rivers. They prefer cold, dark waters.
General range: The Great Lakes; Finger Lakes; a few Adirondack lakes; Hudson, Oswego and Delaware river systems. Atlantic Ocean.

Food: Primarily zooplankton; sometimes smaller fish or eggs.

Recommended baiting: Dip netting is often used near lake shores (freshwater Alewife) or in the deep, slow-moving areas of the Hudson during the spring spawning run. Use of a bright light at night may attract schools.

Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish. The Alewife is an important feeder fish in both the ocean and the Great Lakes. They are also important to commercial fisheries.

Stocked? Invasive. Most likely accidentally introduced to the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, the Alewife has proliferated in fresh water.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs from late April to early June, when sea-run Alewives will run up the Hudson River and its tributaries. The freshwater variety will move closer to shore, with some migrating up larger tributaries to ponds. The females will begin the run first with males following shortly after. Spawning occurs at night, and the adults will leave after the eggs are deposited. The eggs hatch within a week and the young head back to deep waters in the fall.

Nesting: Females disperse eggs over the sand or gravel bottom. No nesting habits have been observed.

Other Info.: Although well established in the food chain of the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, the Alewife is an invasive species that outnumbers native competitors, reducing their numbers and taking their place in the food chain. In the 1950s and 60s the Alewife population grew out of control (primarily due to large predators, such as the Lake Trout, being threatened), and spring die-offs littered Great Lakes beaches with millions of dead Alewives. The introduction and regular stocking of Atlantic Salmon has since reduced the Alewife numbers to an acceptable level.

Blueback HerringBlueback HerringFind more images of this species on Bing

Blueback Herring (Alosa aestivalis)

AKA: Blueback shad, Sawbelly, Summer herring

Identifying characteristics: A small silvery fish with a darker bluish back. The eyes small (smaller than the Alewife’s), and the mouth is small. The dorsal fin consists of one soft-rayed lobe and the tail is forked; both are usually dark in color. A dark spot (shoulder spot), sometimes several spots, are present just behind the gills, above the lateral line. A serrated keel is present. The best way of differentiating a Blueback from an Alewife is to gut it; the Alewife’s interior lining is gray, the Blueback’s is black.

Size: Averaging 11 inches in length and weighing under a pound.

New York State record: none kept.

Habitat: Deep, dark waters of the Atlantic Ocean. They run up major tributaries to spawn.

General range: Atlantic Ocean. Hudson and lower Mohawk Rivers.

Food: Primarily zooplankton; sometimes smaller fish or eggs.

Recommended baiting: Dip netting in the deep, fast-moving areas of the Hudson or lower Mohawk during the spring spawning run. Use of a bright light at night may attract schools. Angling may also work in high concentrations.

Predators: Pretty much all larger predatory fish. Herring are important feeder fish in both the ocean and tributaries. They are also important to commercial fisheries.

Stocked? Not stocked. Breed sustainable populations.

Reproduction: Spawning occurs from late April to mid-August, generally later than the Alewife, and when the water is much warmer. Spawning occurs at night, and the adults will leave after the eggs are deposited. The eggs hatch within a week and the young head back to deep waters in the fall.

Nesting: Females disperse eggs over the sand or gravel bottom. No nesting habits have been observed.

Other Info.: Blueback herring usually do not migrate inland further than estuaries, except in NY state where they have expanded their breeding area up the Hudson and, via the Barge Canal system, into the Mohawk River; almost 100 miles inland.

Northern Cisco

Lake Herring (Coregonus artedi)

AKA: Sisco, Tullibee

The Lake Herring is not a Herring at all. It’s a Whitefish and a member of the Salmonid Family.

Note

Some fish images originally prepared by Ellen Edmonson and Hugh Chrisp as part of the 1927-1940 New York Biological Survey. Permission for use granted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Others were acquired from the public domain. Some are used as part of a Creative Commons license.

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