Menhaden, commonly referred to as bunker or pogies, are extremely desirable forage species that play an essential role in both the Gulf and Atlantic coastal ecosystems. Distinguishable by their olive-green backs, yellow-tinted fins and silvery sides with a series of dark spots, these highly pressured baitfish provide essential protein for a variety of predatory game fish and marine mammals. Fortunately for Florida anglers, menhaden can be found with seasonal consistency along a large portion of the state’s coastline.
Menhaden are capable filter feeders and can sieve gallons of water by the minute as they feast on phytoplankton and plant detritus. By removing these microscopic organisms from the water, the sun’s rays reach deeper depths and stimulate photosynthesis—the process plants use to convert light into energy. The prosperity of aquatic plants in turn increases oxygen levels and helps to eliminate and prevent toxic algae blooms. Menhaden are what is known as a keystone species, meaning their removal from the food chain would dramatically alter the health of the environment.
Like most species, water temperature, salinity and seasonality play a large role in their timing and availability.
In addition to their role as filter feeders, these oily baitfish are heavily targeted by commercial fisheries for a wide range of uses. Recreational anglers around the country utilize ground menhaden chum and menhaden milk to attract prized predators, while commercial crabbers and fishermen use menhaden to bait their traps and hooks. However, the aforementioned exploits have little impact on the overall commercial take. The real damage is accomplished by the commercial reduction fisheries, which harvest menhaden for the production of omega-3 oil. Harvested on large-scale operations with environmentally degrading purse seine nets, menhaden account for the United State’s largest commercial fishery by volume in the Atlantic, and second in the entire country. Although the number of vessels in the reduction fishery has declined, menhaden are still at risk.
Omega Protein is the world’s largest producer of omega-3 fish oil for human consumption, as well as for use in pet food, livestock and aquaculture feeds. Not surprising, Omega Protein has a virtual monopoly and is responsible for a vast majority of menhaden caught by commercial harvesters. While many states have banned Omega Protein’s commercial netters from harvesting in their waters, where they are allowed to fish they absolutely decimate populations.
Like many highly prized fisheries, menhaden stocks have been greatly diminished by commercial harvesters. More prevalent along the northeast coast from New Jersey to the Carolinas and in the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Louisiana, Florida anglers residing in the upper latitudes of the state should have no problem securing a solid supply for a day on the water. However, without increased regulations the future of this environmentally important forage fish could be in jeopardy.
Evidence from DNA analysis shows that the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic populations are two different species, with Atlantic menhaden ranging from Nova Scotia to Central Florida, and Gulf menhaden prevalent from the Yucatan Peninsula to Tampa Bay. When compared to their Gulf counterparts, Atlantic menhaden grow larger and have a less convex body shape. No matter what side of the coast you call home, menhaden begin to show in Florida waters during April, with schools still holding strong throughout August. Menhaden cruise the surface as they filter feed, with dimpling water and diving birds helping to pinpoint their location. Since this protein-rich baitfish thrives on plankton and plant detritus, it is best to leave your quill rigs at home. A fast-sinking cast net is your best weapon, with 5/8″ mesh suitable for the job. It’s best to approach schools in a stealthy manner because they can be quite spooky. For the best opportunities be sure to approach from the upwind side of the school and drift into the disturbance.
Like most species, water temperature, salinity and seasonality play a large role in their timing and availability. Typically, menhaden can be found around marshy areas that are in the vicinity of tidal estuaries and inlets, but in Florida they are more commonly encountered cruising area beaches. Once you’ve cashed in it’s important to note that menhaden can be a bit difficult to keep alive. Menhaden do best in captivity from the confines of a circular or oval well with sufficient flow. It’s also important not to overcrowd your livewell.
Now it is time to work your way up the food chain. One of the benefits is that you won’t have to travel far to get in on the action. Tarpon, king and Spanish mackerel, cobia, jack crevalle, sharks, redfish and a host of predators lurk near migrating schools of menhaden. While live offerings can be slow trolled or free lined around the same schools, fishing a chunk of menhaden with a Carolina rig is another worthy alternative. No matter how you utilize these precious offerings one thing is for sure…menhaden play an essential role in the health of coastal environments and their populations are in jeopardy.