Giving Herring A Helping Hand

Maryland DNR help ensure there are healthy populations of herring | American Rivers

Maryland DNR are working on the Choptank River to ensure there are healthy populations of herring | American Rivers

As light ebbed from the cobalt evening sky, I thought not about the damp bangs, pasted to my forehead by the humid, post-storm air, or the inky darkness that began to envelope us. Instead, my attention was solely focused on the gentle whir of the cast net as it sailed through the air, its splash as it met its mark on the Choptank River and the notion that this might be one of the coolest, weirdest Friday nights I’ve had in a while.

Spring is spawning season for migratory fish, and once the water starts to warm up a bit in the east, herring, shad and other migratory fish begin to make their way up rivers along the coast looking for a little loving. For many state fisheries biologists, this also kicks off their busy season, as they begin to monitor, and in some cases even help propagate, these species. This is what brought me to the banks of the Choptank River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore on a recent Friday.

The Choptank watershed is home to one of the state’s more productive herring fisheries, and biologists with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are working to ensure healthy populations can thrive in other Maryland rivers. When Jim Thompson from Maryland DNR asked if I wanted to come help collect herring eggs that would be used in future stocking efforts on the Patapsco, how could I say no?

Standing along the banks of the Choptank, we cast about on the hunt for the elusive female herring whose eggs were ripe (the window can be incredibly narrow). We fished this 25-foot section of the river for more than three hours and only found two females who were ready to spawn. Luckily, each female herring can carry between 20,000 and 40,000 eggs. The male herring were plentiful.

What came next was far more ritualistic (even spiritual) than the laboratory exercise I imagined. Seated on nearby rocks and lit by headlights on the state truck, both roe and sperm were milked from the few herring collected and combined in a stainless steel vessel. Chuck Spence with Maryland DNR and, rumor has it, responsible for the millions of herring fry stirred this strange mixture with a turkey feather while river water and a special powder were added. This process continued until only the fertilized eggs remained in the river water. These were moved to their new nursery (aka a sealed plastic bag and cooler-type contraption) and immediately driven by a third member of the team to their temporary home at one of the state hatcheries.

As I watched the truck speed away, I couldn’t help but feel even more alive. I silently bid these new little herring farewell and promised to keep fighting to make their new home in the Patapsco River as hospitable as possible.