Fish Feature: The Alewife

I’m starting something new today: “Fish Features.” The purpose is to showcase the variety of Pennsylvania’s fishes and to offer some education. This is how I’ve spent most of my life: studying fish and I’d like to share some of that experience and knowledge. In the months ahead, I’m going to feature as many Pennsylvania fishes as I’m able to, one at a time.

 

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Note: I first posted this short piece last month and was quickly informed that I’d used pictures of gizzard shad, not alewives, which was correct. So, I sought help from friends at the PA Roughfish group and now have some actual alewife photos which are included here. I have apparently never photographed this fish.

 

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Photo: Sean Phillips

 

“The gaspereau are running at Second Lake!” dad informed me with a smile as he hung up the phone. Suddenly, the evening took on a new purpose and I was about to meet a new fish. This was Nova Scotia, Canada, I was 10 and the French “gaspereau” translated into the English “alewife.”

At the lake’s outlet that evening though, the run definitely wasn’t all I’d been led to expect. Lamprey outnumbered the foot-long black fish torpedoing upstream occasionally. I lost interest at some point but dad got one in the smelt net as the sun set over Second Lake and the day following I got a little taste of this oily member of the herring family. This was the last I heard of alewife for many years.

 

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Photo: Bob Billick

 

In Pennsylvania, the alewife exists in roughly 3 different forms: Atlantic drainage anadromous (running from salt into fresh water to spawn), Lake Erie alewives (introduced), and isolated populations generally introduced into other isolated lakes to offer forage for larger, more desirable sport fish. The largest are the anadromous alewives that ascend Delaware and Susquehanna drainage rivers in winter to spawn.

 

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These are Gizzard Shad

 

These days, I know the alewife from Lake Arthur, a large, fairly shallow impoundment to the north of Pittsburgh. It’s a phenomenally nutrient-rich place and this is probably why the alewives do so well there. They’re filter feeders, generally hunting zooplankton and there’s no shortage of this in water bodies like Arthur. They are, like many members of the herring family, very sensitive to shifts in temperature and dissolved oxygen and this frequently results in extensive fish kills, especially during winter. (But the gizzard shad suffer the same fate so not all the silvery fish frozen in the February ice are alewives!) In western Pennsylvania, these fish can be found in Lake Arthur, the Youghiogheny Reservoir, Yellow Creek Lake and Pymatuning.

 

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Photo: Brandon Li

 

Sport fishing potential for this species seems very limited. Honestly, I’ve never heard of anyone mouth-hooking a freshwater alewife myself. I’ve only recently learned of freshwater fishermen who target these and apparently this is often done with a multi-hook setup known as a “Sabiki rig.” Maybe it’s a challenge for 0-weight fly-fishermen or the micro-fishing micro-crowd. And it’s difficult to describe this species as integral to its ecosystem either; again, they’re introduced in western Pennsylvania into man-made lakes as forage for fishes that are generally non-native.

But it is worth understanding a little about the fish’s biology and general habits if you’re fishing waters where it’s found. The movements of this schooling and pelagic species often affect the movements of hybrid striped bass, black bass and the large trout that pursue them. In Lake Arthur, particularly, you have to know where and when the alewives are active if you want a shot at stripers. Incidentally, I caught my largest childhood freshwater drum on a live alewife and the largest Great Lakes yellow perch I’ve ever landed also hit a live alewife.

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