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Bait Fish "Deep Dive" -- Menhaden

Bait Fish "Deep Dive" -- Menhaden

We know that Zombait is only part of the recipe for looking alive on the water.  In order to have realistic swimming dead bait you have to have, well, dead fish.  The type of bait fish that you use with Zombait is partially dependent on where you live and the season that you are fishing.

Sport fishermen understand that photo show alongside their trophy is the highlight of a successful trip, but bait, although extremely essential, is often forgotten.  Rarely do we pose for an Instagram shot with our favorite mullet, or herring, or ballyhoo.  How often do we try to impress our friends with videos of the most amazing bait fish we’ve ever seen?  The answer is probably never.  Bait fish are simply one of many inputs that yield greatness out on the water.

Well, we think that it is high time for someone to finally put bait in the spotlight and give it the recognition and status that it deserves.  And so begins the first of our “deep dives” into bait fish. 

This month, our focus is on one of the most important and economically significant fish in North American history.  This is the story of the Atlantic Menhaden.

The Sciencey Stuff

Menhaden Fish Brevoortia Tyrannus

The Atlantic Menhaden, or Brevoortia Tyrannus (sounds so powerful), is a member of the clupediae family, a distinction that it shares with herring, mackerel, and other bonefish.  Adults typically range in length from 11-15 inches.  While silver in color, they typically have brassy sides and a dark blue-green back.  They are deep-bodied and laterally compressed.  Phew.

Atlantic Menhaden feed on different types of plankton that exist in the ocean;  thus, feeding habits partially explain their migration patterns.

Dead Menhaden Fishing Bait


A big blunt head, no teeth, and a portly figure don’t give Menhaden the physique to be considered a hero in the water or a spot on the cover of Sport Fishing Magazine.  Quite the opposite, however Menhaden have a long and storied history as referenced in articles that date back to revolutionary times.  The name Menhaden is actually a portmanteau (combination of words) made up of Poghaden & Munnohquohteau, an Algonquian Native American word for the fish meaning “that which manures”.  Early settlers and Native Americans believed that the fish made an excellent fertilizer for crops.

Following it usage as a fertilizer, Menhaden became a popular fish used for high-protein animal feed, oil in soaps, lubricants, health-food supplements (think: fish oil), lipstick, and more.  After 1850, once whales were hunted to near extinction, the mighty Menhaden became the leading source of oil in America with more than 400 sailing ships from Maine to the Carolinas hunting menhaden wherever they lived.  

Menhaden Fish History
(Photo Credit: NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service)

An article in The Newburyport Herald from 1865 indicated that the Menhaden fishery was the most valuable fisheries on the coast and that at least 65,000 barrels were obtained for bait, 40,000 barrels for oil were obtained, and 20,000 tons of scraps were sold for fertilizer, making the value of the fishery equal to $2.2 Million USD in 1865, or about $40 Million in today's Dollars.  Quite a lot of value from a fish which is so easily discarded.

Over 150 years later and Menhaden are still the #1 species, by volume, of fish harvested along the Western Atlantic Ocean (and #2 in the Pacific)

What’s In A Name?

“What’s in a name?” some might ask. Well, if the answer is not nothing, then the Atlantic Menhaden is having an identity crisis.  An article written by Dr. G. Brown Goode in 1878 titled “A Study of the Popular Names of the Menhaden” indicated that there were (are) at least 30 (!) distinct popular names for this fish.  Let’s walk through some of the common ones.

Because the word Munnohquouteau was local to southern New England, it is no surprise that Menhaden are called by their name in Rhode Island and along the southern Massachusetts coastal areas.

Poghaden is a rough version of the word Pauhagen, which is another Indian name for Menhaden spoken by northern Native Americans, therefore the name “Pogy” appears more often than not in areas in New England.  It was written that there is an even more local name persisting in the Cape Ann region of Massachusetts where they can sometimes be called “Hard Heads”.

Sometimes called “Bony Fish” or “White Fish” in NY, especially in Long Island and along the coast to NJ, Menhaden have also been known to be called “Mossbunker”, which appears quite frequently throughout NJ.  This is often shortened to “Bunker

In areas of Delaware Bay, the Potomac, and Chesapeake Bay, other variations are found, most notably “Bunker” but also “Bug Fish” or “Bug Head”.  

As we work our way south, you may hear Menhaden referred to as “Fat-Backs”, which can be heard as far south as the Indian River in FL.  In the Carolinas, you may hear other names for Menhaden including “Yellowtail”, “Shiner”, “Green Tail”, and “Herring”, of which Menhaden share a family with, along with the familiar “Bunker”.

Regardless of your name for it, there is no doubt that they serve as an effective bait when targeting big species.

As Bait

Menhaden are a tasty target for many pelagic sportfish including Tuna, Cobia, Sharks, Swordfish, Bluefish, and more, but are especially irresistible to Striped Bass who are drawn to the oily scent.  Pogies also attract tarpon, who navigate their way along the Southeastern coast in the late summer and early fall.  

If you're trying to use Menhaden as bait fish, be sure to use a large, round livewell.  Non-round livewells will result in the fish nosing their way into corners and reducing their lifespan.  Keep the water cool and aerate well, as these are delicate fish and will not last long in unsuitable conditions.  

The fact that Menhaden do not survive easily in captivity is why it is hard to find them for sale live at bait shops.  Frozen Menhaden is a whole different story and a few calls to local tackle shops on the East Coast should allow you to get your hands on some nice baits.

Where & When To Find Them

Seasonally, Menhaden can be found in the late spring to mid fall in coastal areas north of North Carolina, while typically present year-round in areas south of NC.

US Map Where to Find Menhaden

Menhaden feed on zooplankton, which exhibit a process known as diel vertical migration, meaning they live in deep water during the day and rise as the sun sets.  Zooplankton in turn feed on phytoplankton, which feed on algae, so what we end up with is a seasonal migration pattern that follows, and lags, behind phytoplankton.  The seasons for Menhaden are different depending on where you live. Areas north of the Carolinas can expect the season to be roughly April - October the Carolinas and points south have a season lasting year round.

Seasonality of Phytoplankton and Zooplankton
Tracking Phytoplankton & Zooplankton levels off the coast of NJ

Atlantic Menhaden are found along the coasts from Nova Scotia to the Jupiter Inlet on the Loxahatchee River in FL.  

Will it Zombait?

Yes, absolutely!  Zombait fits easily into the mouth of most adult Menhaden and can be used to catch any of the species listed above. It might help to sew the mouth of the Menhaden shut after the Zombait has been inserted to help the lure stay firmly inside the fish.  As always, be sure to use a solid tether to help you get Zombait back.  If fishing for Striped Bass or Tarpon, using steel leader is a good idea as there tend to be some pretty toothy fish around during these fishing seasons.

(Video Credit: Mikko Nissinen)

Final thoughts

Menhaden make an excellent bait to use Zombait with both due to their size and shape.  Their abundant availability will allow you to fish “Live” Menhaden anytime, anywhere, no exceptions!

Look Alive Out There.


- The Zombait Team