The Herring Run

If you watch the water, you will likely see herring making their laborious journey up stream. Here at the Paines Creek/Stony Brook Herring Run in Brewster. Photo by Jane Booth.

Although herring, or alewives, are not part of our regular diets today, in Colonial times they were a preferred catch.  In  addition to salting alewives in tubs of brine, early settlers served them fried and smoked.  The fish also served as fertilizer for crops.  Decades later, many considered alewives a “poor food fish" and are now used primarily as striped bass and lobster bait. Regardless, Cape Codders have always had a high esteem for these annual visitors and the excitement surrounding the run.

Members of the herring family, alewives were among the most abundant fishes in the world.  They are found along the Atlantic Coast from Canada to Florida.  Because of its large belly, many believe their name derives from the “alewives,” female tavern keepers of Elizabethan England.  Adults range from 8-15 inches in length; they have large eyes, forked tails, silvery sides and gray-green backs.

Paines Creek/Stony Brook Herring Run in Brewster across from the Stony Brook Grist Mill (seen in the distance). Photo by Jane Booth.
Herring are anadromous, meaning, while they are ocean-dwellers most of their lives, each year they return to the fresh water systems in which they were born to spawn—a wonderful signal of Spring on the Cape. 

In April and early May, when our brooks and ponds are the right temperature (around 57 degrees), schools of herring navigate into fresh waters via natural and artificial courses. If you visit a herring run, you’ll see dark pools of fish waiting their turn to cross.  Then, amid the mighty rush of the water, what look like flashes of silver leap the “ladders” that assist them in the final leg of their journey.

After spawning, the female alewife lays up to 100,000 eggs.  The adults that survive predators, then return to the sea.  Unlike West Coast salmon, all adult herring do not die during the migratory process.  Many will return to the ocean while others will fall prey to gulls, man or the elements.  Meanwhile, the eggs drift for two to three days before finally sinking, then stick to rocks and debris.  Two or three days later, they hatch.  By autumn, the young alewives follow the adults’ paths to sea.  When they reach sexual maturity, they will become part of the cyclical return to our freshwater ponds to spawn.

Taking a breather (and avoiding gulls) at the Paines Creek/Stony Brook Herring Run in Brewster across from the Stony Brook Grist Mill. Photo by Jane Booth.
Over the last several years, researchers have noted a marked decline in the number of migrating herring.  In efforts to rebuild the stock, the taking of herring or alewives is strictly prohibited by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts until further notice.

The run is quite a sight to behold and if you visit a herring run, stay out of the stream and do not touch or interfere with the fish and their migration.

Where to watch them "run"

  • Bournedale Herring Run, Bourne:  After the canal destroyed the natural run into Herring Pond, local engineers created this artificial watercourse so that the herring could enter at spawning time.  Access from Route 6, about halfway between the two bridges.
  • Paines Creek/Stony Brook Herring Run, Brewster: This series of natural “fish ladders” leads to a pond near the Stony Brook Grist Mill.  The mill was constructed on the foundation of an 1873 woolen mill and contains old milling equipment and a 100-year-old loom. Access from Stony Brook Road, off Route 6A (at the yellow flashing light).
  • Bell's Neck Conservation Area, Harwich: A man-made herring run is part of this 250-acre conservation land.  Take Route 28 to Depot Road to Bells Neck Road.
  • Mashpee River Herring Run, Mashpee: A man-made herring run next to the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum on Route 130.

Courtesy of the Best Read Guide Cape Cod.