There are few fish in the world that make as large an impact on their local marine environments than the humble Atlantic Menhaden. Known locally as Bunker or Pogies (not to be confused with Porgies, a common nickname for Scup) Menhaden are primarily a filter feeder and forage fish for most Atlantic game fish. They grow to a modest 15 or 16 inches and have very strong schooling tendencies, often congregating in massive schools comprised of thousands or tens of thousands of individuals. They are also commercially invaluable and constitute the largest landings, by volume, of any Atlantic fish species. Their name is derived from the Narragansett Indian name, Munnawhatteug, which translated roughly to “that which fertilizes” and used for that purpose extensively by Native Americans and early Colonists while planting crops. While they are not considered table fare the oils, fish meal, and other products rendered from Menhaden end up in products ranging from pet foods and fertilizers to Omega 3 dietary supplements and processed fish dinners.
The history and continuing role of Atlantic Menhaden in society is interesting- seeing their annual migration through Rhode Island’s waters in person is incredible. Schools of Menhaden, some the size of football fields or larger, become more apparent in Narragansett Bay by late May as their predators, Striped Bass and Bluefish, harass them from below and push the schools into tight balls on the surface. Often the water in the school looks black and turbulent as the fish pack tightly together to try to avoid being taken from below. Especially on a calm day a good school of Menhaden can be spotted from a mile or more away. As the migration progresses the schools work their way into estuaries such as Narrow River in Narragansett, the Pawcatuck River in Westerly, or most dramatically into Providence and Seekonk Rivers in Providence. Constrained by the narrowing of land and shallowing of the water the fish become much more crowded, panicky, and are easy prey for patrolling Stripers and Blues.
Because they are filter feeders and won’t take a lure weighted snagging hooks, consisting of about an ounce of lead molded onto a very large 5/0 to 8/0 treble hook, are necessary to land Menhaden. The weighted hook is cast into the school on a stout rod and retrieved at a steady rate while attempting repeatedly to set the hook. Sometimes the fish can be felt running into the line and help indicate when to attempt a hook set but, if placed in the school and properly retrieved, there should be no problem connecting with one. Casting nets are employed by some though it requires a lot of practice to get right.
Once in possession Mehaden can be put out as a live bait, cut into chunk baits, or cut or ground into chum. When fished in proximity to the main school or schools fishing can be hot and heavy with Stripers ranging from 15 to 40 pounds plus along with big chopper Blues harassing the schools and scooping up baits as fast as they can be deployed. Often snagged Menhaden will be attacked as soon as they’re pulled from a school by large Striped Bass and/or Bluefish and landing the baits is not even necessary. Other times a good chunk bite can develop, especially when Bluefish are present to naturally chop up prey and chum the waters, and Stripers can be found on cleanup duty in the wake of a school’s passing.
The reefs and structure at the mouth of the Bay also become stacked up with game fish awaiting the exit of the schools and chunking or live-lining can be effective. This also leads to great trolling and jigging opportunities as big fish take up residence. Using Umbrella Rigs or Jig and Pig techniques near the bottom can yield big results. 50 pound plus fish become more and more likely as the Menhaden schools begin to trickle back out into the open sea.
The Atlantic waters off Rhode Island are filled with fishing opportunities in May and June. Fluke fishing is heating up fast and many other species make their first appearances in our waters. Estuaries are filling with baitfish, Bluefish, and small Stripers, the Cinder Worm “hatches” offer fly fishermen unparalleled action, and sand eels migrating into shallow waters draw game fish into casting range of surf fishermen. Some of the fastest action and best chances at big fish, however, follow the Menhaden schools into the Upper Bay. As a fisherman it’s an opportunity that, once experienced, will likely become one of the most anticipated events of the season.