The Menhaden – A Prime Summer Bait


Menhaden, pogies, bunker, alewife, or herring – whatever you call them, they make excellent bait for most any large fish that a Florida angler might want to catch. Cobia, king mackerel, tarpon, redfish, jack crevalle, sharks, reef fish, all will eat either a lively whole pogy or a bloody piece from a dead one. Various menhaden species range along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of the U.S.

Biology (from Wikipedia):

The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a small, oily-fleshed fish that plays a major role in the marine ecosystem on the east coast of the United States. Its maximum size is usually 15 inches. The average size is smaller in the southern portion of their range, and largest in the north.

They are bright silver, and have black spots extending horizontally from the gill plate to the tail, with the largest directly behind the gill plate. They are quite flat and soft fleshed, with a deeply forked tail. The edges of the fins and tail often have a yel- lowish hue. At sea, schools may contain millions of members.

Menhaden are omnivorous filter feeders, feeding by straining food particles from water. They travel in large, slow moving, and tightly packed schools with open mouths. Filter feeders typically take into their open mouths “materials in the same proportions as they occur in ambient waters.”

Atlantic menhaden can spawn year round in inshore waters off the Atlantic coast, with the highest spawning rates near North Carolina in the late fall. The eggs hatch in the open ocean and the larvae drift to sheltered estuaries via ocean currents. The young spend a year developing in these estuaries before returning to the open ocean. At this early stage, they are commonly known as “peanut bunker.”

The Atlantic menhaden usually do not become sexually mature until the end of their second year, after which they reproduce until death. A young, sexually mature female can produce roughly 38,000 eggs, while a fully mature female can produce upwards of 362,000.

Finding Menhaden
Numbers of diving pelicans are the easiest way for a fisherman to find a school of pogies. Another very good way is to follow the charter boats. Since those captains work the coastal waters every day it’s their business to keep track of where the bait is.
Pogies usually “flap” on the surface. Usually they’ll also make big muds. If you see either of these phenomena with either diving pelicans or cast netting humans you can be pretty sure there are pogies down below.

Catching and Keeping Menhaden Alive
The best net for catching menhaden is a fast sinking, 5/8 inch mesh net with 1.5 pounds of lead per radius foot. The net needs a long rope for when the pogies are on the bottom in deep water.

I don’t make a living tossing a net, and mine sinks too slowly when the pogies are in deep (more than 10 feet) water. They see it coming down and just get out of the way. Where it’s shallow a slow sinking net works fine, but in deep water you definite- ly need a net that sinks like an anvil.

Menhaden are fussy and hard to keep alive. You need a round or oval livewell with good through-water flow. They get stuck in the corners of square wells, bruise their noses up, and die. For maximum life on your baits try to keep a ratio of one bait to one gallon of livewell capacity.

Using Menhaden for Bait
The menhaden is versatile bait. For cobia, tarpon, sharks, and crevalle, all one needs do is use an adequately large circle hook. Hook the bait in front of the eye from one side of its nose to the other. Cast the bait to sighted fish or in the case of tarpon where you see the fish rolling. My experience has been if you make a good cast to any of these species it’s real hard for them to say no.

King mackerel fishermen generally use a stinger rig, with a large hook through the nose and a smaller hook through the tail. The two hooks are wired together. The baits are slow-trolled through waters known or hoped to contain king mackerel. If the baits are running small use two, one on each hook.

Chunked menhaden works wonderfully for tarpon, sharks, and redfish. When a pogy dies in the well it can still be used for cut bait or chum.

Unfortunately, pogies don’t freeze well. Thawed pogies are almost too soft to use as bait.

Threats to Menhaden Populations
Menhaden are important for fishmeal and fish oil, with both of these “reduction” products being used as feed for livestock and aquaculture. Fish oil made from menhaden is also used as a human dietary supplement, and as a raw material for products such as lipstick.

As already mentioned, Atlantic menhaden are an important link between plankton and upper level predators. Because of their filter feeding abilities, “menhaden consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy within and between Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries, and the coastal ocean.” Menhaden are an invaluable prey species for many predatory fish, such as striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, flounder, tuna, drum, and sharks. They are also a very important food source for many birds, including egrets, ospreys, seagulls, northern gannets, pelicans, and herons.

There are two established commercial fisheries for menhaden. The first is the reduction fishery. This fishery’s output produces omega-3 oils for human consumption, and aquaculture, swine, and other livestock feeds.

The second is the bait fishery, which harvests menhaden for the use of both com- mercial and recreational fishermen. Commercial fishermen, especially crabbers, use menhaden to bait their traps or hooks. The recreational fisherman use ground men- haden chum as a fish attractant, and whole fish as bait. The total harvest is approximately 500 million animals per year. Atlantic menhaden are harvested using purse seines.

According to Paul Greenberg, who has called for a ban on fishing menhaden in US federal waters and the Chesapeake Bay, the continued harvesting of menhaden is having detrimental effects on the population, which in turn is affecting populations of fish that feed on menhaden and especially on water quality:

The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration – a job that was once carried out by menhaden. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we “reduce” into oil every year.

Can You Eat a Pogy?
I’ve never tried one, but in the mid 18th century menhaden were prized in America for their delicate but rich flavors. Mark Catesby (1682-1749), an English naturalist, wrote of the menhaden as an “excellent Sweet Fish, and so excessive fat that butter is never used in frying or any other preparation of them….[menhaden were] much esteemed by the Inhabitants for their delicacy.”

Colonel William Byrd II, the founder of Richmond, Virginia, commended menhaden as food fit for a gourmet writing of the menhaden as a “small, but splendid fish when it is baked.” Over a century later George Brown Goode (1851-1896) praised the menhaden for its flavor, saying it is “superior in flavor to most of the common shore-fishes,” and notes that menhaden sold at a “price nearly as high as that of striped bass, the favorite fish in Washington.”

Maybe I’ll have to try one.