Pogies have been abundant in North Shore waters

Pogies have been abundant in North Shore waters

Courtesy Photo/Mary Gayle SartwellDave Sartwell hauled in a striper taken on a pogy.

I can’t remember the last time there have been so many pogies (Brevoortia tyrannus for you Latin fans) in the water. Huge schools of them can be found right now from Salem to Salisbury. The big stripers and tuna have just been feasting on them.

These fish, also known as menhaden on the South Shore, bunker further south and about thirty other names along the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Florida, grow to roughly 15 inches in length and weigh in at about 1 pound. Native Americans in precolonial America called the fish ‘munnawhatteaug,’ which means ‘fertilizer.’

They are a rather oily forage fish with a scale-less head that composes about one-third of it’s body length, are fairly flat-sided with a deeply forked tail. They can range in color from dark blue, green, blue gray, or blue brown above, with silvery sides, belly, and fins, and with a strong yellow or brassy luster. There is a conspicuous dusky spot on each side close behind the gill opening, with a varying number of smaller dark spots farther back, arranged in irregular rows.

They feed in a rather unique manner. An adult pogy swims along with it’s tooth-less mouth wide open and its gills spread. As tiny plankton, annelid worms, and crustacea flow into the mouth they are caught in a whole series of very fine comb-like gill rakers. As they move through the ocean these small fish filter as much as 7 gallons of water per minute! Imagine how much water is filtered when a whole school is feeding.

They have no defense mechanism other than being hidden in a huge school. They are oil-rich so every prey fish in the ocean targets them. Pollock, cod, tuna, stripers, sharks, bluefish and swordfish all savage these schools. Menhaden are a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to cut risks of heart disease and possibly other diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

They spawn in the ocean in july and August, later in the year to the south of us. Their eggs, at about 1.6 mm in diameter, are quite large for the size of the females. An adult female will produce about 300,000 eggs per year. These eggs only take about two days to incubate. They grow quite quickly, reaching roughly 3 inches long by the winter. By their second year they are 6 inches long and reach sexual maturity in the summer following their third winter. They then will reproduce for as many as five more years if they live that long.

They appear along the North Shore when the water warms to well above 60 degrees as it cannot survive in water below 50 degrees. Their numbers in our area fluctuate widely with years like this one being the high end. Many believe this fluctuation is based on the warm water currents and the presence of an increased amount of plankton in the water. Fish taken in our waters are fatter and oilier than those taken farther south. They will follow the food and can be seen schooling forty or fifty miles off-shore.

It may surprise you to know that pogies are the number one species, by volume, harvested along the Atlantic coast (and number two on the Pacific). Reduction of menhaden yields three products: fish meal, fish oil, and fish solubles. The fish aquaculture industry depends heavily on fish meal to improve feed efficiency and produce maximum growth rates. Crude fish oil is used in foreign aquaculture, while refined fish oils are used as a nutrition supplement for people. Their oil is used in everyday products like lipstick, cookies, salad dressing, margarine, and fish oil supplements. Fish solubles are used to fortify fish meal and increase nutrition in the aquaculture industry.

A few of these in the bait well could be just the ticket to landing one of those big stripers you have been dreaming about.

Dog Days of Summer

When the water heats up during the dog days of summer, the big fish just drop to the bottom during the day and rest. When they find a small depression that is just a little cooler than the rest of the flat, they hunker down stay quiet. They also do not eat as much. As a result, catching stripers during the day in late July and early August is a hit-or-miss proposition.

The best way to search out these fish is to study the water at low tide. Using your charts and your eyes, look for those places in the river or the mouths of rivers where the tide and current have gouged the bottom just a little deeper than the surrounding mud. These ancient river beds have a natural channel that can shift from year to year, changing the bottom contours. However, they all have spots where the natural bottom can be that foot or so deeper. Where that hole is found, the water can be just a degree or so cooler and a hot spot to catch fish.

Using your electronics here can be of great help, but you have to be willing to put in the time. I have friends who even do scuba diving to find the holes. They just put on the gear and work the channels in a bit of a grid pattern until they find what they are looking for.

Often these depressions occur on the downstream side of a rock.

When you do find these holes you have to fish them with the appropriate bait and you have to put the bait right on their nose. They are like pigs at a trough, they just will not move far to eat.

Maybe it is pogie time. See ya on the water.