Each spring along the New England coast, river herring come from far out at sea in large numbers to spawn in fresh water, pushing against the flow of streams large and small, sometimes traveling many miles inland. Mature fish are reputed to return to the same brooks and rivers from which they emerged in a past season as juveniles. If you stand in the shallows at night in just the right place and swing a long-poled net through the water, you will have fish to take home.
River herring are really two species, the alewife and the blueback herring. To a novice like me, they look the same: both are streamlined and silver-sided, about a foot long. The females and males can also be hard to tell apart, though it’s easier during spawning, when the females are plump with roe, the spongy mass of tiny eggs they are coming ashore to release.
Just as herring aim for the places where fresh water spills into the sea, people bearing nets have traditionally gathered there to meet them. No fancy gear is required, and herring make excellent fertilizer for spring gardens. With a little effort, they can be made delectable. You don’t need a permit (at least, no one asked to see mine), just access to the shore after dusk, for herring are most active at night. Darkness blots out the typically pleasant coastal scenery, making the fishery secretive, and a little spooky. Night fishing puts you directly in touch with certain strong forces of nature: the rhythmic tides, the ancient urge to hunt, the headlong rush of migrating fish out of the ocean and into your net.
Back in the early seventies, I was still in school and knew nothing about this. Late on a Saturday afternoon in April, a bunch of us were hanging around the student radio station in Cambridge when somebody’s girlfriend, who, it turned out, had grown up on the Rhode Island shore, began to lobby for a road trip to go “herrining” back in her old neighborhood. After a while it became clear that herring were fish that did something interesting in spring, and that she meant right now.
Curious, and having nothing better to do, I squeezed into the back of a car with some friends and away we went. Two hours and many turns later, we arrived after dark at a weatherbeaten old house, a seemingly vast structure that stretched up and away into the night. A single lightbulb illuminated the dooryard and little else. I could hear waves breaking on a beach nearby, but couldn’t tell how close they were. A quarter mile? A stone’s throw? I could smell salt water and rotting seaweed. A cool, insistent wind came off the ocean, and I wondered if I should have brought a warmer coat. I didn’t know exactly where in Rhode Island this was, but it was clear that we were down near the bottom edge of it, where the roads end and the land runs out.
A small crowd of local friends and relatives was inside, everyone getting ready for the herrining, though some would be satisfied to wait indoors in the warmth until we got back. Now came the mild chaos of searching through closets for fishing nets and rubber wading boots for everyone, plus extra hats and coats, the idea being to outfit ourselves as well as possible from a makeshift assortment of vintage, salt-encrusted gear. Please hurry it up, the fish won’t wait! Then back out into our cars and into the night. Our little convoy nosed onto the road we had come in on, then turned onto a side road, then another, until we were headed down a narrow dirt lane towards the sea. When our headlights went dark, there was only the glow of a nearly full moon, partly hidden behind clouds, to guide us. A couple of us fumbled with flashlights but were admonished to “Shut those off! We can see better without ’em!”
It wasn’t a long walk to the beach, or a wide beach to cross. The ocean was waiting for us, beyond a low slope of broken shells and coarse sand. I heard water percolating under our squeaking, wobbling boots, and realized that a little stream originating from somewhere up behind us made its exit to the sea right here. Here is where the fish would come.
In we waded until the water reached our knees. Though mostly still shaded by passing clouds edged with silver, the moonlight was strong, outshining the stars, and the sky all around us was a deep metallic blue. Gentle waves, less than a foot high, passed among us and broke on the beach behind, each with a soft swish. We were hunters now, a mysterious knot of dark, stooped figures, waiting for something to happen.
The wind rose softly. The waves became more frequent, and higher. Something had shifted. The shallows around us were dark as ink, and we couldn’t see anything at all down there, but a few of us tentatively swept our nets through the water anyway. “There!” Someone hoisted a dripping net against the sky; a lively fish could be seen flipping around inside. Now someone else had caught two, maybe three, one of which succeeded in flipping back out of the net.
Moments later, it felt like a powerful searchlight had been switched on and was pointed at us. It was the moon, now free of the clouds, bright as a young sun, it seemed, and exerting its pull on human, fish, and sea. The herring began to surge at us. The water around our boots bubbled and boiled. Fish fins broke the surface on all sides. Behind us, herring beached themselves and somersaulted up the slope, following the thin stream of fresh water. Each time we swung our nets we scooped up three, four, five or more. The plastic bags we’d brought began to fill up. What were we going to do with all these fish?
I don’t need to tell you that life is often messy, and this was no exception. The bottom was mostly flat and sandy but there were rocks here and there, and some of us stumbled and fell, or collided, dropping our nets and soaking our clothes. Often the mounting waves slopped icy-cold into our not-quite-tall-enough boots. There was shouting and splashing and laughter, and the honeydew moon rising over it all.
In less than an hour we had all the herring we could carry. We stumped over to our cars, threw in our gear and bulging bags of fish, and bounced up the narrow lane and back to the house. Bright lights shone in the high-ceilinged kitchen, and everything seemed smeared with seawater, excitement, fatigue, and fish scales. By now, the fish we had caught were no longer very alive, or alive at all. I found out that the next step was to sort them, skinny males over here, plump-bellied females over there. The males were going to be dug into the gardens (by somebody, some time), while the females were going to be gutted for their roe (by us, right now) with sharpened knives. That is, we were going to butcher them.
At this point, I began to be troubled by what we were doing. It seemed cruel and wasteful. What was the point, exactly, of all this catching and killing? Here was an inarguably beautiful fish that had traveled great distances along ancient pathways, using senses we didn’t possess or understand, and, seeking only to propagate, had run straight into our nets, and our knives. Was this even ethical? Sure, people had been taking herring here for a very long time, hoping and trying to catch as many as they could — but because their survival in some way depended on it, not for an evening of primitive fun. And most of our fish never got put away properly, I’m sorry to say, and instead were thrown into the yard, where they began to stink, and so ended up as a free breakfast for gangs of noisy gulls, out beyond the salt-streaked windows.
Yes, we stayed the night. There was room enough in the corners of the old house for all of us to sleep. In the morning, we took turns scrambling eggs over a venerable gas range, and those who wanted to fry up some roe, glistening peach-yellow and ruby-red, could do so. I did. It was fishy, naturally, with a grainy texture, one of those tastes people call “acquired.” Mostly, it simply tasted wild.
The following April, I came back to this place and once again joined an excited crew to go herrining in the moonlight; I guess I must be a hunter at heart. But you can’t re-create such fragile events. Even while they’re happening, you know it won’t be the same again. This time it was a colder night, and the herring, gathered offshore, knew enough not to approach the stream of fresh water, where their eggs would surely go to waste beneath the frosty air. We caught a few strays, and that was all. Before long, the old-timers in the group turned and left for home. After a while, so did the rest of us.