The Herring is a remarkable fish. I have often wondered why no one has written a book on him, for there is much more material for such a work than there is for a dissertation on any other of our food fishes. At the same time, I doubt if we really know more about the herring than we do of the salmon. There is a herring language peculiar to fishermen, fishcurers, and salesmen ; there are herring legends ; and there is a most powerful mass of fishery statistics. How many people, I wonder, know the meaning of over-day-tart, matties or maties, And gut-pock herring? Sodger and soldier we know, but what are these? White-herring, green-herring, red-herring, black-herring, kings and queens— all these are terms of mystery; possibly of deep meaning. Let me say at once that an over-day-tart is a costermonger's phrase, applied to herrings which have been kept over twenty-four hours without being salted, and have reddened considerably, owing to the extravasated blood near fins and gills. A gut-pock herring is a Scotch term applied to fish which have made a hearty meal and distended themselves with small crabs, etc. Matties or maties, a word possibly derived from maiden, signifies a herring which has not spawned and from which the roe is absent. Fish full of roe, on the other hand, are in Scotland termed mazy herrings.
As for legends, there is no end to them. According to a copy of the ' Banff Journal,' published some time in 1885, certain Buckie fishermen dressed up an unfortunate cooper in a flannel shirt with bars all about it, and wheeled him through the town on a barrel, like a cockney Guy Fawkes. The herring fisheries had been very bad, and it was supposed that this proceeding would improve them. There are even dark stories of men and women having been burnt for having cast their evil eye on the fishery and driven away the herrings. It is, by the way, a common practice for whale fishers to burn an effigy to bring luck whenever a ship has fallen in with few whales. The crew attribute their bad fortune to some unlucky person, and by burning his effigy they believe his malign influence will be overcome. Needless to say, the unlucky individual is generally the must unpopular man on board. If luck is exceedingly bad, two or three pictures or effigies are thus sacrificed. It is possible that this ancient practice arose from just such a custom as that which prevailed among the herring fishers of Banffshire, by whom it may have been introduced on board the Peterhead whalers.
In Norfolk there was a curious theory that herrings and fleas made their appearance about the same time. In ' Notes and Queries' a fisherman of Cromer was credited with the following remark : ' Lawk, sir, times is as you might look in my flannel shirt and scarce see a flea, and then there ain't but a very few herrings ; but times that'll be right alive with them, and there's certain to be a sight of fish'.
The Manx fishermen, who are particularly superstitious, think there is great virtue in taking a dead wren to sea. The idea appears to be based on an old tradition of some sea spirit which haunted the herring fisheries and brought storms. Assuming the form of a wren it would fly away, carrying with it, let us hope, all bad weather and misfortune.
Many curious theories have been put forward with respect to the migrations of herrings, but the generally accepted opinion now is that these fish simply retire to deeper water, returning to the coast at various seasons which differ with the locality. At the same time, they appear to forsake districts and parts of the coast for years together. The periods at which they spawn are very uncertain, and, like their movements, vary with the locality. From winter to late spring is the usual time, but it is quite possible that in some places they spawn twice during the year. From 10,000 to 30,000 eggs have been counted in a single herring. These when shed, unlike the eggs of most of our food fishes, sink to the bottom of the sea and attach themselves to the seaweed, rocks, and stones. In the Baltic herrings have been known to spawn in two or three feet of brackish water.
These fish feed variously at the surface, midwater, and on the bottom, many having been caught in trawl nets. From some very interesting observations made by the Scotch Meteorological Society it was proved that the weather had an important bearing on the movements of the herrings and the success of the fishermen. When there were thunderstorms about, the catches were small. Most fish were taken when the temperature of the sea was about 55.5°.
I have included the herring within the scope of this book because of the undoubted sport they give to the fly fisher on occasions (see p. 175). The herring also takes bait, and at Peterhead, Wick, at the entrance to the Firth of Forth, and at Tarbert on the west coast, is caught on a dandy-line during the spring. The gear is nothing more nor less than a paternoster with little booms made of whalebone or stout wire about nine inches in length. The lead varies in weight from lb. to 4 lbs. There are half a dozen to a dozen booms, each of which is simply attached at its centre by a clove hitch in the line ; they are placed nine or ten inches apart. At the free end of each boom is about three inches of line terminated with a bright tinned hook. This arrangement is lowered to the bottom and then worked with a sink and draw motion. The brightness of the hooks attracts the fish. It is when the herrings are plentiful and are keeping near the bottom about or during the spawning season that this apparatus is used, those caught being usually cut up as bait for the cod lines. At night-time herrings will take a bait such as mussels, pieces of fish, etc, offered to them on any modification of the paternoster.
It is hardly meet I should say much concerning the economical side of herring fishing, but the figures are simply astounding. It has been said that during each autumn the nets in the North Sea, if joined together, would make a length of from 8,000 to 10,000 miles. On the Scotch coasts alone the annual take is over a million barrels of herrings, each barrel being worth over 1 l. It is supposed that something like 2,000,000,000 are caught in British waters every year. Most fortunately herrings are prolific, for not only do we catch them in such enormous quantities, but all nature seems against them. There is hardly a fish in the sea larger than themselves which does not feed on them ; and, hunted from below, they are harried from above by wildfowl of every description, while porpoises, sharks, seals, all take toll from the shoals. From babyhood to old age the herring swims in constant danger of its life. If this slaughter by billions continues, it will not be surprising if Nature steps in and causes the herring to spawn three times a year instead of twice, to meet the demand.
In captivity herrings have been known to sacrifice themselves. They appear to be a gay, reckless fish, dashing hither and thither, believing that the sea is wide and obstacles few. Some herrings imbued with this idea when placed in an aquarium, ran their heads against the glass and killed themselves immediately the gas was turned out. It was found that by leaving a small jet of gas during the night this self-martyrdom was prevented. Sometimes herrings revenge themselves in a wholesale way on the fishermen by simply crowding into the nets until their weight is so great that the warp has to be cut. Once, on the East coast, about 700 nets, worth 1,300 l., were thus sunk by fish.