Herring Run Tactics

Dan Wells is a very experienced and passionate angler. Here is an incredibly insightful guest post about targeting striped bass. You can follow Dan on Instagram at @canalflyguy. Many thanks to blog team member Alex Bagdonas for teeing up this post.


Spring is here, and, any day now, herring will start showing up in their spawning runs.


There are many articles on how to fish herring runs. Often, some of the best fishing does not occur in the areas this article focuses on, such as estuary mouths, bridges, and deep ledges, which require a boat or surf-casting gear to target effectively.

Instead, the focus of this article is on areas that fly fishermen can effectively target. This involves water up to eight-feet deep and where casts of 60 feet or less are all you need to get into the bite.

This is a night-time pattern, and I have never personally had a herring run bite continue longer than one hour after first light.

If you are unfamiliar with night fishing, here are a few key things I must stress:

  1. Do not fish an area until you have scouted it at least twice during daylight: once at an extreme low tide and once at extreme high tide.
  2. Get the Gaia GPS or similar app for your phone and mark areas with way points, and add photos to those way points from the low-tide scouting trip.  This way, when you arrive at night, you can reference those photos to understand what is there when you can’t see well.
  3. Do not get deeper than ankle-deep ever!  Fish will be in calf-deep water, and the mud is very dangerous.  In general, I do not wade at all and only get wet if it’s an extreme high tide and water is two feet above the top of the marsh.
  4. Stop 10 feet in front of where you think the edge of the marsh is and then approach with your red light on.  Stop three feet short of what looks like the edge, and fish from there.  Sod banks drop off sharply, often to depths of five feet or greater.
  5. Bring a net with a minimum six-foot handle length to land fish so that you don’t get close to the edge. Sometimes when the tide is three feet below the marsh edge, this is the only way to land a 20 lb. fish.
  6. Only use the red light on your headlamp, or you will spook fish.  The white light should be for emergencies only or for walking out when the fishing is over.  A camera flash for big fish is the only appropriate white light on these trips!


This game plan is for herring runs that geographically include the Bay side of the Cape and anywhere north of there. The extreme tidal range there (eight- to 14-foot tide changes are common) is very different than the Cape’s south side (where three-feet tide changes are the norm).

You will focus on the area beginning at the first impassable barrier at low tide up to 100 feet down river of the herring ladder.  You goal is to identify ambush areas along this area that provide stripers a good place to pin herring and feed.

I have found the prime spots to be major creek channel intersections, sharp bends of 90 degrees or more, and any man-made restrictions such as culverts or small bridges.


Once these spots are identified, you need to scout them at different stages of tide to figure out which depth level allows bass to enter during an incoming tide and which one will force bass to exit during a dropping tide.

My experience is 18 to 24 inches of water is all they need on an incoming and 24 to 30 inches during the drop.  If you find a hole that is over six-feet deep or more at dead low tide, bass may hold over in these and not exit the marsh.

Until you get experience with an area, my recommendation is to walk along a marsh edge in the woods and stop regularly to listen for feeding fish. Only venture into those ambush areas if you can hear the activity on a quiet night.

Once at the spot, I try to key in on bigger fish; I locate them based on the sound of the feeding. The best way to describe it is if it sounds like someone just pulled a five-gallon bucket under water. That is the sound of a 14 to 20 lb. bass! You should cast in that direction first.

Last season, I averaged over five miles of walking in a three-hour fishing session. I would stop when I heard activity and move every time it stopped for more than 10 minutes.

Over time, you will start to figure out which areas are hot at exactly what water levels and move preemptively to each location to be there when the bite starts. For the first two seasons, though, you will have to chase the bite by sound and do a lot of walking.

Last, fly selection and presentation for this type of fishing.  You want large flies that push a ton of water and that are eight to 12 inches in length to match the size of herring.

I have had best success with diving foam heads or sliders, but deer hair head flies will work fine, too.  Herring tend to push to the surface at night and run along edges of sod banks.

An ideal presentation for searching would be throwing a cast quartering down current and letting the fly swing within two feet of a deep sod bank. You then strip it back with occasional pauses of two to three seconds, followed by rapid strips.

For presenting to feeding fish, I like to cast as close as I can to the heard activity with a surface waking pattern.  Once the fly lands, I retrieve rapidly away from the feeding activity and try to push a large v-wake on the surface to mimic a herring fleeing along the surface.

This year, my primary patterns will be Rich Murphy’s RM Rattlesnake (a nine-inch rattling subsurface streamer) and two of my own custom patterns: the Graveyard Shift, which is a 12-inch rattling slider, and the Surfcaster Special, a lipped-tube fly that creates surface action similar to a Danny Surface Swimmer.


Hope this helps. Enjoy the coming striper season!


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