April 14 2024

Herring Have Arrived on Cape Cod

by Ryan Collins
31 comments

One event which many locals and visitors look forward to each spring is the arrival of river herring on Cape Cod. Herring migrate from the open ocean into Cape Cod's streams and rivers, en route to the freshwater ponds and lakes where they will spawn.

For many centuries, perhaps thousands of years, Cape Cod herring were harvested by the indigenous Wampanoag people, and later the European colonists, for many different reasons. Today river herring are a protected species on Cape Cod, and in this post we'll take a closer look at this celebrated fish.

Scroll below to continue reading, or you can use this table of contents to skip ahead to certain sections.


When Do The Herring Run On Cape Cod?

Herring runs on Cape Cod and throughout New England experience the arrival of herring at different times, depending on the herring run. In general they arrive in April (sometimes earlier) and continue running throughout May and even into June.

Usually in the spring while walking my dog, I will hear ospreys and hawks chirping from high above the trees for the first time. This is a strong clue that river herring may have arrived. 

cape cod trout fishing hawk

During the spring, hawks and ospreys (plus other birds of prey such as the great blue heron) gather near herring runs. It's a feast they don't want to miss out on!

Once I hear those ospreys and hawks I will often swing by the Bournedale Herring Run at the Cape Cod Canal, which is the closest run to my house. Typically I see herring at the Bournedale run starting sometime in early April. 

As mentioned above, the herring run from April through mid-June, but I sometimes hear about river herring being spotted as early as the third week of March.

Typically these are reports of herring being spotted in the Middleboro. Middleboro is not located on Cape Cod, but it is typically the first run where herring are spotted in our general region. 


What It's Like to Visit a Herring Run

Visiting herring runs on Cape Cod to watch herring on their annual migration is an event that myself, along without countless others eagerly anticipate.

Cape Cod herring signify spring, which is always exciting. From April through early June, schools of herring will "sit" in pools of calm water, just out of the current, at Cape Cod's numerous herring runs.

The herring are "waiting" for the right moment, when they will surge forward into the rushing water, and continue their migration up-current, towards the Cape's many freshwater ponds and lakes.

When I was 6 or 7 years old, my parents would take me to the herring run at the Cape Cod Canal and let me "catch and release" herring with my bare hands.

Of course grabbing herring from the river is now illegal activity, but back then it was a life changing moment for me. 

Nowadays, instead of catching the herring, I prefer to photograph them underwater, and I'm learning some cool new things from the footage.

For example, if you look closely at the image below, then you might notice that one of the herring has what appears to be scratch marks on the top of its back.

I was thinking that this herring could be the survivor of an attack from an osprey or hawk.

I can imagine, for example, an osprey swooping down from above and encircling its talons along the dorsal of this herring. 

I am sure there was a struggle, which resulted in the herring breaking free and dropping back into the relative safety of the stream. 

All I can say is I was fascinated by these fish as a kid, and I am still fascinated by them today!

Special thanks to My Fishing Cape Cod member Matt Murphy who shared the above photo here inside our forum. Matt photographed this osprey with a herring on April 9th 2020 in the town of Dennis.


Where To Watch the Herring on Cape Cod

One of the cool things about herring is that they have a funny way of making it into "secret" streams and ponds that few people know about. If you spend some time exploring, then you might stumble across one of these little-known herring runs.

However, most of the major herring runs on Cape Cod are well known to the general public, and there are many Cape Cod herring runs where you can watch the herring on their annual migration.

Below are some of the better-known herring runs on Cape Cod that I'm aware of. I developed this list a long time ago, and I am by no means a herring run expert, so please forgive me if I've made any errors in this list.

If you have an intimate knowledge of the areas below and believe I have made an error, then please kindly let me know in the comments

     1) Bournedale, Cape Cod Canal

     2) Mill River, Sandwich

     3) Stony Brook, Brewster

     4) Bee’s River/Herring River, Eastham

     5) Herring River, Wellfleet

     6) Sparrow Pond, Orleans

     7) Chathamport Alewife Brook, Chatham

     8) Herring River, Harwich

     9) Swan Pond, Dennis

     10) Bass River, Dennis/Yarmouth

     11) Parker River, Yarmouth

     12) Centerville River, Barnstable

     13) Herring River, Marstons Mills

     14) Mashpee River, Mashpee

     15) Santuit/Cotuit River, Mashpee

     16) Quashnet River, Mashpee

     17) Childs River, Mashpee

     18) Coonamessett River, Falmouth

     19) Many of the various ponds located in Falmouth

     20) Red Brook, Bourne

     21) Monument River, Bourne

Certain groups on Cape Cod are also doing amazing work restoring herring runs which have been damaged by development. Most notably, the damming of rivers and streams has had a detrimental impact on river herring habitat.

One interesting project which I hope to see come to fruition is the restoration of the Herring River in Wellfleet. This is such an incredible area of Cape Cod, and a lot of great work has already been done to help restore the river to its pristine state.

I thank anyone who is involved in this type of commendable work!


Herring Caught on Video!

If you are just as fascinated by the herring migration as I am, then you might enjoy the following video.

Some of you might actually recognize this video as part of the "Angler Education" series which has been airing during commercial breaks of season four of My Fising Cape Cod TV. These segments feature my favorite underwater and drone footage of Cape fish and wildlife.

Please click play below to watch! ?

Responsive Video

In Conclusion

Right now is without a doubt one of the most exciting times of the season. More and more schools of herring will arrive with each passing week now throughout this spring. Once the month of May rolls around, striped bass will arrive on Cape and will begin hunting the herring.

I know many people are "chomping at the bit" for the saltwater season to kick off, and the arrival of the herring is always great to see. I've included some more links below for members of My Fishing Cape Cod who are interested in learning more about herring.

Please LMK if you have any questions or herring reports of your own by leaving a comment below. 

Tight lines! ?

Learn more about herring

If you'd like to learn more about the herring migration, then we have the following content here on My Fishing Cape Cod which you might be interested in. ?

Access The Full Episode

This river herring video was part of our Early Spring Saltwater Fishing episode. Members can click below to access the full 28 minute episode.

Watch More Angler Education Videos

Members of My Fishing Cape Cod can watch more Angler Education videos by clicking here, and new videos will be added throughout 2022.

 

About the author 

Ryan Collins

I'm fortunate to have grown up on the beach, and I've been fishing since kindergarten. I have great family, friends and fishing experiences to be thankful for. Just being out there is enough-catching fish is just a bonus!


  • Ryan, Thank you for the informative segment on Herring runs. I live in Duxbury, MA where there is an inactive Herring Run stream leading to the Island Creek Pond in Duxbury from Kingston Bay. The town with the State’s help, is trying to reactivate it. When the run becomes active again, it will provide Herring to the Duxbury, Kingston and Plymouth bays. If anyone has information about reactivating a Herring Run and important tips for caring for one when it is active, please forward them to my web site [email protected]. Thanks

    • I am interested in the process of a Herring Run becoming active again. I understand the structural component of clearing obstacles and building a system such as a fish ladder that can accommodate Herring in their journey up the river. What I find confusing is how a biomass of fish that will make use of the run is redeveloped. My assumption is that adult Herring return to the run that leads to the freshwater source where they hatched a few years before. If the run has been inactive, there would be no Herring that had descended the river as fry to spend time in the open ocean and then return to repeat the process. Has a group of Herring been returning each year to the base of the run even though they have not been able to reach fresh water and successfully spawn? If the run has been inactive for many years wouldn’t the life span of Herring mean that with no new babies, after a certain amount of years no Herring would be left that keyed onto that particular run? Why would any random Herring start to use the new run? Does anyone know how this would work? If you do, please help!

  • I should have added that on Herringbrook Road, just before the entrance of the Kescayogansett/Lonnie’s Pond herring run, is a small paved Orleans town landing, so a small boat can be put in there, and it is a great place to launch kayaks for fishing.

  • Ryan, I enjoyed your herring piece! I just wanted to let you know that for Orleans, you list Sparrow Pond in Orleans as the site of the herring run. That is partially correct, except years ago the name changed from Dean Sparrow’s Pond, to Pilgrim Lake. I have found references to Sparrow Pond back in 1910, but by the 1940’s, old maps show the name had changed to Pilgrim Lake. The Pilgrim Lake herring run is a small run, and begins on Herringbrook Road, where herring enter the run from the Upper Pleasant Bay estuarine pond named Kescayogansett (AKA Lonnie’s) Pond. “Schoolie” bass should be arriving at the pond soon, and can be caught from a boat (best not to enter the pond on lower tides), or depending on the tide, from the marsh bank/shore at the entrance to the run. There is a very small parking area for about two cars there by the marsh creek/run entrance. Boots recommended! Our herring arrived on March 23 this year, and have been running pretty strong ever since. Herring can usually be best observed just up the road at the top of the run at Pilgrim Lake. Orleans has a Volunteer Herring Count Program, and we have been conducting visual herring counts for MA DMF since 2008.

  • Nature is incredible! As you know I am involved in counting herring in Orleans which I thoroughly enjoy. Last week I participated with the Center for Coastal Studies and CCNS in a clean up at Duck Creek in Wellfleet. The Herring River restoration started that day as well. Before we started the clean up the CCNS ranger gave us a brief lecture re: the Herring River restoration. As always I am happy to participate is these type of events!

    • Thanks Leslie for the update. I am really excited about the Herring River Restoration and I’m looking forward to seeing how the river reacts once the project is done. Any idea when the project is scheduled to be completed?

  • Not sure where sparrow pond is , but Pilgrim Lake to the saltwater inlet at KescayoGansett Pond , now I’m aware that many places on cape can have more than on name, but the second one for this area is Lonnies Pond.

  • I never understood why the Middleboro run is always way ahead of others on Cape Cod. It was especially confusing since the town of Middleboro is both further inland and further North than Bournedale, Brewster, and all of the other Upper Cape runs. Then last year my friend Tom and I visited Middleboro while the Herring Migration was in full swing with Herring in the run then reentering the river above the dam. Some research before our trip provided that the answer is access to the ocean, not proximity nor geographical location. The connection from the ocean to Middleboro starts in Mount Hope Bay near Newport, RI. From the bay, the Herring enter the Taunton River which winds northeast then connects with the Nemasket River in which the Herring swim upstream on their way to spawn in the Assawampset Pond complex in Lakeville, MA. The Middleboro run is in the middle of the Nemasket River stretch of their journey. So the Middleboro run is independent from the other Cape runs and actually on a timetable more aligned with that of Rhode Island than that of Massachusetts. Thus, the appearance of Herring in Middleboro should signal the start of the season in Rhode Island but mean that we still have about three weeks to wait for them to appear in Massachusetts waters.

  • A great blog with lots of beautiful pictures. Love the herring video too. I have been noticing a lot of hawks while driving lately. The “vibe” of Spring is in the air! Thank Ryan, great job as always.

    • I’ve also been seeing more hawks than usual this week. There is also a group of beautiful ducks in the abandoned cranberry bog behind our house. The ducks arrive each year during early March. I am still waiting to hear an osprey, but I’m sure I will soon. Have a good day!

  • Ryan, I coordinate the volunteer herring count for Orleans. Herring showed up about 2 weeks early this year, arriving in decent numbers March 14th. A second surge came in yesterday. We have a small run compared to Bourne, and Stoney Brook in Brewster, but numbers have increased over the past 5-6 years which is encouraging. Should be good “schoolie” bass fishing soon in certain areas of Pleasant Bay, such as up in The River, and Lonnies Pond (AKA Kescayoganset) where the herring run is located, and also along the sandy bluff on Strong Island in Big Pleasant Bay. Ospreys are also here now. Loved your video!

  • Any change in season is still a real kick for me, senior citizen that I am. Spring is my true joy and your herring video signals the annual regeneration of species and hope for the future. Your video captures both and it inspires me for yet another season on the salt. Good job!

  • I checked out the herring run at the Brewster Grist Mill over the weekend (3/27/21). There were a few (a dozen) swimming about. The Harwich run with the electronic counter was at 428. They are slowly working their way here.

  • Ryan! That is so cool! Yes! now I remember the voice actors name, David Attenborough. Great job! Some day I’ll be saying “I knew you when!” Strong work!

  • Tom and I went scouting yesterday. Stopped by both the Middleboro and Bournedale runs. Middleboro is in full swing with Herring in the run and then reentering the river above the dam. I have always wondered why Middleboro starts so far ahead of the other Cape runs. Found the answer with some research before our trip. The connection from the ocean to Middleboro starts in Mount Hope Bay near Newport, RI. From the bay, the Herring enter the Taunton River which winds northeast then connects with the Nemasket River in which the Herring swim upstream on their way to spawn in the Assawampset Pond complex in Lakeville, MA. The Middleboro run is in the middle of the Nemasket River stretch of their journey. So the Middleboro run is independent from the other Cape runs and actually on a timetable more aligned with that of Rhode Island than that of Massachusetts.
    There were no Herring at the Bournedale run although there was a good sized Yellow Perch finning in the current

  • Ryan I love the angler education videos! Who is the lovely English narrator!? In this herring video? Sounds familiar, like someone I’ve heard on Nat Geo or something! Great job! Thanks!

    • The narrator is Scott Tunnix. He’s from the UK and is a professional voice actor. He does a pretty good David Attenborough impersonation (David is the world famous narrator for Discovery, Nat Geo etc.), and that is probably why the narration sounds so familiar to you. Lots of fun creating these videos!

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