Every year, usually in February, if you stand along the edges of Crescent City Harbor, the phrase "shooting fish in a barrel" might come to mind. Of course, there are no guns. Throw nets and fishing rods equipped with Sabiki rigs are the preferred equipment, but the mind-boggling ease at which folks catch bucket-loads of Pacific herring does smack of barrel-shooting.
On Tuesday, dozens of people lined the rock walls near the Crescent City Coast Guard station and the recreational boat launch near Whaler's Island, pulling up Pacific herring on almost every cast - sometimes two to five at a time on the multi-hooked Sabiki rigs. Those tossing Hawaiian throw nets frequently pulled up dozens - maybe hundreds - at a time.
"They are getting them pretty good right now," said Leonard Carter of Englund Marine Supply Co. in Crescent City Harbor, which sells gear to many herring hunters. Carter said that anglers are now also catching herring in the inner boat basin after about a week of folks finding the fish mostly near Whaler's Island.
Crescent City is about halfway into the annual herring run, which usually lasts two to three weeks, Carter said.
Most people soak their herring haul in a brine, freeze them and eventually use them as bait for bigger catch: salmon, lingcod, rock fish and even crab. Englund Marine carries several brines and rock salt to preserve the bait fish.
But herring can also be consumed themselves after they've been fried, smoked or pickled.
"A lot of guys like that pickled herring," Carter said.
Many anglers, like Jim Hooper, target herring from a boat - in Hooper's case, a kayak.
"This year we've been fortunate with the good weather and the grade of herring," Hooper said. "Some years it seems that the weather is so windy and cold it makes for a pretty miserable fishing experience."
Pacific herring spawn in many harbors on the West Coast, where they are caught recreationally, but Crescent City is unique for its commercial herring past.
It's one of only four areas in California where the state allows commercial catch for Pacific herring using gill nets, but no one has used Crescent City commercial permits since 2003, according to state records. Commercial harvest of herring in Humboldt Bay and Tomales Bay also ceased recently, in 2005 and 2007, respectively.
Herring are commercially harvested primarily for their roe.
"Herring ovaries (commonly referred to as "skeins" by those in the fishing industry) are brined and prepared as a traditional Japanese New Year's delicacy called 'kazunoko,'" according to a report from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Even in San Francisco Bay, where herring is still harvested commercially, landings are down from the 40-year average of 4,307 tons a year to 1,634 tons harvested last year.
Thomas Greiner, a CDFW environmental scientist who works on assessment and management of the San Francisco Bay herring fishery, thinks that a big factor in the decline of the herring harvest effort is the price.
"They are getting a lot more herring from Alaska, British Columbia, and some Russian herring as well," Greiner said.
Pacific herring is a coastal schooling species, with large schools found from the surface to as deep as 1,300 feet. They can reach 18 inches in length, 1.2 pounds in weight and live up to 19 years.
"A large spawning run may last a week and can result in 20 miles (32 kilometers) or more of the shoreline being covered by a 30-foot-wide band of herring eggs," according to the CDFW report.
Recreationally, there is no limit to how many herring you can catch, but a fishing license is required unless you are fishing from B Street Pier or Citizen's Dock.
Get 'em while the getting's good.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.