The Versatility of Herring
Herring are one of the top baits for salmon anglers from Alaska to California. There are endless ways to fish them such as mooching a whole bait, plug cutting for trolling, and suspending herring under a float to name just a few. Some techniques don’t require a specific size, such as using a fillet of herring as a bait wrap on a plug or used to stuff a scent chamber or clamshell style plug. But for those that like to fish either whole baits or plug cut them then the size of the herring can make all of the difference.
Looking in the bait freezer or fridge at the local gas station or tackle store and you will find trays of vacuum sealed herring. The size is based on a color system, and sometimes the only way you can tell the size of the baits is from the color of the label instead of the wording on the package. The color-coded system is based of five colors or sizes.
Black label herring are about 9 to 10 inches long. Most of the time anglers use black labels for halibut and sturgeon fishing. There are some other fisheries, such as off of Kodiak Island and northern British Columbia where the Chinook are absolutely huge and if you want to catch a big fish then use a big bait.
Blue label are 7 to 8 inches in length and are great for plug cutting and mooching for feeding Chinook. The larger baits are a bit tougher and give off more erratic actions as they are mooched. Lingcod anglers also use the blue label size rigged whole with a mooching weight and double 4/0 hooks. The larger herring makes it easy for “ride-along” lings that grabbed the bait and won’t let go even though they aren’t hooked.
Green label herring is the most popular, as the size lends to a variety of uses. They are 5 to 6 inches long and great for rigging whole with a helmet and trolling or even plug cutting and trolled or mooched. The fillets are also just the right size for wrapping plugs. Most of the time when anglers buy their herring by the case they choose green label for the versatility.
Red label herring are 4 to 5 inches long and just the right size for coho fishing, especially when using a herring helmet for trolling. Chum also take a red label herring that is suspended under a float near tidal waters at river outlets and streams dumping into Washington’s Hood Canal. If you are wondering if trolled herring works for landlocked Chinook, such as those found in Washington’s Lake Chelan and Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene, the answer is “yes” and the red label is the perfect size.
Orange label are the smallest baits offered in trays for fishing. Just 3 ½- to 4-inches in length, the little bait is great for trolling for trophy trout. Kokanee anglers have even caught the landlocked sockeye on them. Orange label herring suspended under a float will also catch chums at the same places that other anglers are using red label, so if you get to the gas station late and they only have orange label they are still worth purchasing. You can also use them minced up in a clamshell plug or wrapped on smaller plugs such as the 3.0 Mag Lip. One other rigging option for orange label herring is to use them with a Spin-N-Glo and plunked or even to cut the in half and use them with eggs while float fishing for fall Chinook and coho.
Good Rule of Thumb: Tight-Spinning Herring Best
When fishing herring for salmon, you want to produce a perfectly rigged offering, or, don’t use it. When I think of a perfect spin I’m looking for a bait that is spinning super tight like a drill. Although you can use whole herring, a cut plug herring is generally easier to achieve the spin you’re looking for, and is more effective at producing a tight spin.
For years, I’ve heard of the “slow roll” when targeting Chinook and a “fast spin” for coho. In my personal experience, I catch more kings and silvers with a tight fast spin. I also tend to use smaller bait if it’s close to “matching the hatch”. If there are large horse herring around and the kings are in, then I’ll go with blue or purple label, but my choice has always been green label. It’s also easier to achieve a faster spin with smaller bait.
The angle of the cut is crucial to get that fast, tight spin. Until you can consistently achieve the perfect cut, you may consider the use of a bait cutting miter box. If the box has two angle choices, always go with the one that will give you the faster, tight roll, generally labeled as the “Coho Cut”.
The top hook will also determine how fast and tight your herring will spin. Using the smallest hook you’re comfortable with (I use 2/0 or 3/0 for coho, 3/0 to 5/0 for Chinook) insert the top hook as close to the spine as you can, approximately a quarter-inch from the edge. You may need to experiment with this but once you find the “sweet spot”, it’s like money. During a wicked bite, you can leave the back hook trailing, otherwise insert the back hook along the lateral line.
Remember, if it doesn’t look perfect, don’t fish it.