How To Catch Atlantic Menhaden

Few fish make less of an impression but have such a significant impact as the Atlantic Menhaden. If the fish were not so oily, the case could be made that the Menhaden was the perfect source of protein. It is not, but Menhaden are a vital part of any healthy fishery and play a key role beyond that.

Since Menhaden mostly eat plankton, the issue in catching them is more about method and place than any bait that might be used. Because of their diet, catching them on traditional hook or even luring them into a trap is difficult. The best way is to use a net and target areas they might be lurking.

Netting Menhaden can range from trawlers using purse seines to individuals using handheld nets. Where to look is a secret with most Menhaden fishers although understanding how they function can help narrow that location down quickly. Once you find them, rounding them up just takes elbow grease.

Where To Find Atlantic Menhaden?

It is no exaggeration to say that you can find Atlantic Menhaden just about anywhere there is salt water on the east coast of the US, from Nova Scotia down to northern Florida. That includes:

  • The Atlantic Ocean
  • Bays to the Atlantic Ocean
  • Saltwater estuaries
  • Salt marshes
  • River Mouths that empty into saltwater bays or the ocean
  • Stream outlets that enter into bays or the ocean
  • Streams that enter into rivers that enter into bays or the ocean up to about a mile

With a list like that, it is difficult to find a body of water that opens into a saltwater bay or ocean that does not have at least a small population of Menhaden.

To learn specifically where to look to find Atlantic Menhaden it is important to understand a few facts about the fish.

Menhaden Are Part Herring

Atlantic Menhaden are a smaller version of the herring family (Clupeid.)  Unlike shad and river herring, Menhaden do not travel up bay or ocean tributaries to lay eggs and mate. They spawn in the ocean. Their young make their way to less saline bodies of water, which is why you can find them in streams that pour into a river for up to a mile from the river’s mouth.

Spawning Habits

Atlantic Menhaden spawn after year 2. They spawn in warmer, shallower waters across the continental shelf. Their spawning period can last all year. The largest population of spawning Atlantic Menhaden happens off the North Carolina coast in the late fall.

In the mid-Atlantic, Atlantic Menhaden spawn from the end of March through May. These Menhaden spawn close to shore, mainly because their young will make their way to less saline waters for their first two years.

It depends on the water temperature, but in warmer waters, Atlantic Menhaden will hatch within 2 to 3 days of the female releasing them into the water. The eggs remain buoyant, and the fry will spend about 3 months in the open ocean water before making their way inland.

As Atlantic Menhaden mature, they start to migrate towards larger bays The Chesapeake Bay is a favorite as are protected ocean waterways up and down the east coast. After a few months, larval Menhaden will migrate towards bays in search of less saline bodies of water. Juvenile fish will eventually migrate back to the ocean in about a year (the following fall.)

Ocean Bound

Once the juveniles enter the ocean, they migrate towards warmer water to winter. Cape Hatteras is often a destination for Atlantic Menhaden that spent their first two years in the Chesapeake Bay.

After wintering in Hatteras, the Atlantic Menhaden will make their way north, into New England waters.


To catch Menhaden, it helps to know what they look like. Here is a summary:

  • They are silvery
  • They have a black shoulder spot right behind their gill plate
  • Menhaden have varying number of darker, smaller spots up and down their sides
  • Some Menhaden have scutes running lengthwise down their belly
  • The fish seems compressed visually
  • Its caudal fin is deeply forked
  • Their fins have no spines
  • Size: less than an inch up to fifteen inches

A schooling fish, it is common to see balls of Menhaden in any slightly saline to saline water. Menhaden are thought to do this for protection from predators. The fish have an instinct that compels them to ball up, which presents a visible but tough to hit target for most gamefish.

It is common to see balled Menhaden being attacked from all angles by gamefish such as striped bass, bluefish, tuna and sharks. The predator fish will thrust through the fish and kill as many as possible. As fish parts drop down through the water, the predators will then gobble up the Menhaden.

When attacked, a school of Menhaden will ball together and swim in a circular, upwards pattern. As they become more agitated, they will break the surface of the water. When looking to target a school of Menhaden, watching the surface for disturbances is a very effective tactic.

Another indicator of a school of Menhaden is under attack are sea birds swooping down and seeming to skim the water. These birds are actually picking off Menhaden that are swimming near or at the surface. When several birds are skimming the surface, it is usually and indication of two things:

  • A larger pool of Atlantic Menhaden is schooling near the surface
  • Predator gamefish are pushing them up

Lifespan, Diet and Size

Atlantic Menhaden will grow to be about fifteen inches long at full maturity. Fully grown, they weigh about a pound. Their principal food source is phytoplankton and zooplankton.

Population Health

Native Americans showed the first settlers how to use Atlantic Menhaden as fertilizer for corn. Later, Menhaden were used to produce more oil than the whaling industry, at the whaling industry’s height. Menhaden were also the favored prey by multiple gamefish and were prolific off the coast of the USA.

Twice, due primarily to overfishing, the Menhaden population collapsed. Another two times, the US government determined that Menhaden populations were decreasing rapidly and several commercial and sport fishing associations in coordination with the US federal government restricted intake of Menhaden.

Today, most reduction aspects of the fisheries in the US have slowed down significantly. There are no more reduction plants in North Carolina and only one in operation in Virginia for instance, where there used to be several in both states. Menhaden in both states now are primarily caught for sportfishing bait purposes.

According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA,) which accepted a 2020 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission report on Menhaden health, “Menhaden are not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring (on an individual basis.)

Favored Locations

Menhaden as schooling fish for most of their lives. Often, those schools are large, sometimes spanning up to a mile. Menhaden will also gather closely when trying to avoid or ward off an enemy. Giant schools of Menhaden trying to ball-up or condense the space they take up requires space proportionate to the size of the school.

Because of that tactic, Menhaden prefer protected but deeper pools of water. These can be found at marinas, along sea walls in estuaries that run a ways back off the main body of water, along river channels, ledges or topographical dips, etc.

How It All Fits Together

Understanding as much as possible about the Atlantic Menhaden can help determine where the fish will most likely be hanging out. From the information above, the following profile can be determined, which can help formulate a strategy for catching Atlantic Menhaden.

  • Atlantic Menhaden like to hang out in less saline, but salty waters until around their second year
  • Those types of bodies of water include marshes, estuaries and the mouths of rivers and streams that enter ocean bays or the ocean itself
  • Menhaden are usually schooling fish and travel together
  • When attacked, Atlantic Menhaden will form a loose ball and swim in a circular pattern
  • Atlantic Menhaden will break the surface when attacked from below by predator gamefish
  • Birds skimming the surface of the water repeatedly is an indicator of surfacing baitfish, which are often Atlantic Menhaden
  • Menhaden are primarily although not exclusively caught for bait purposes
  • The Menhaden population is healthy, which means the amateur angler can hunt them with no worries of impacting the population (provided they remain within the law)

What Is The Best Way To Catch Atlantic Menhaden?

We now know what we are looking for and that the Atlantic Menhaden population is healthy. So, how do we catch them?

Traditional Bait Will Not Work

Atlantic Menhaden are filter feeders, so using traditional bait will not work. Primarily, Atlantic Menhaden consume phytoplankton and zooplankton that hang in the water column. What that means is using flesh, lures or other baits usually used to catch fish will be ineffective.

Observation And Chance

Because luring Menhaden is almost impossible, anyone wanting to catch one must rely on two facets that serve other forms of fishing well:

  • Observation
  • Chance


Observation is the process of being aware of your surroundings and making decisions based on calculations pertaining to those surroundings. With Menhaden, you want to be on the lookout for “flicking” and be ready to move in that direction with your equipment.

Flicking is when Menhaden break the surface. They might do so by jumping out of the water or just breaking the surface with their fins, back, tail or face.

Outside of when a predator is chasing them, no one knows for sure why Menhaden breach the surface of water. They do regularly, however. When they jump from the water or break the surface, it is called flicking.


Fishing is largely driven by good, or bad, fortune. A fish may or may not be where you put your bait. That fish may or may not be hungry. It may or may not sense your bait.

Even when bringing a fish in you rely on chance. Your line could break, or a fish could pull the hook out of their flesh. Another predator could attack your catch as you reel it in. You could mess up netting the fish, letting it get off your hook.

A lot of things can happen in the process of catching one fish.

The same goes for finding a school of Menhaden. You may or may not see them flicking. It may not be a big school. They may become aware of you and bolt. Another predator may chase them into hiding or fleeing.

If you use a net, you may not cast it accurately or it may become tangled and make netting Menhaden extremely difficult if not impossible. Your net may have a breach, or your net webbing might be damaged. Throughout the process of gathering Menhaden, chance can render your catch worthless or absent in a heartbeat.

Practically, that means there are only a few ways to catch Atlantic Menhaden.

How To Catch Atlantic Menhaden

Catching Menhaden, given the limitation of them not being enticed by bait, becomes possible through only a few tactics. Here are some methods and general advice to use the information above to the greatest advantage you can.

Use A Fish Finder

Whether you use a fish finder mounted on a boat or a portable fish finder, having one will make your job a lot easier. Relying solely on chance that you will see a school of Menhaden you can sneak up on is not only difficult, but it could also get extremely frustrating.

A fish finder makes the process of chance a little more calculated, although you still must find the school of fish before it shows up on the fish finder.

That makes being able to read the fish finder particularly important. When monitoring your fish finder, look for “blobs” that hug the bottom closely. When Menhaden are not schooling and breaking the surface of a body of water, they will pool at the bottom and seem almost motionless. Look for blurry masses on your finder that have obscure edges.

Look For Flicking On The Surface

Menhaden are rarely solitary. They almost always travel in schools. When you see a Menhaden flicking on the surface it is almost an assured thing that there is a school beneath and all around that fish. If there are several that are flicking, even if they are moving across the water, the school is around the flicking fish and in many cases, the school is very large.

Target Shallower Waters

Menhaden schools tend to be large. Menhaden themselves tend to be very fast swimmers. That means they can escape most nets if the nets take a long time to sink.

For that reason, look for Menhaden schools in shallower water. The shallower the water the less time a Menhaden must escape a net. While you will rarely get a school in less than 5 feet of water, you can find schools around ten feet regularly. Shallower water also means less avenues of escape.

If you focus on those places, you are all but guaranteed to get a larger yield than if you threw a net in twenty feet of water or deeper.

In some cases, however, casting a net into shallower water is not possible or practical. When that happens, you should add weight to the end of your net.

Casting Nets

The following are casting net sizes for catching Menhaden.

8’ Net

An 8’ net is the ideal size for someone fishing for Menhaden on a boat. It covers a wide space, but is not too bulky, heavy or awkward to throw accurately. It also is not too large to haul in, even if you have a big load of fish.

10’ Net

A 10’ net is ideal if you are fishing for Menhaden on a larger boat or on land. With more deck space, you can maneuver easier without worrying about tripping. This size net also can catch a significantly larger number of fish.

You may need two people if your haul is large, however.

12’ or Larger

If you are just learning to use a casting net, you should not use a 12’ net. It simply is too large and heavy for a newbie to throw accurately and precisely. Additionally, if you net a lot of fish, it can be almost impossible for one person to haul in.

12’ nets can work with very large boats or if you are cast netting from shore.

Net Methodology

The first step is to locate and identify the parameters of a school of Menhaden. Once you have done that, you throw the net out and let it sink for a few seconds before you start to bring it back in. There are a many online tutorials on how to throw a casting net accurately and so that it lays in a full circle on the water.

As you bring the net back in you will feel if there are fish in the net. Bring the net all the say in and onto your boat (or the shore) being careful to keep the opening of the net above water.

Purse Seine

Seine fishing involves two parties holding a net vertically with the bottom of the net dragging on the bottom of the body of water. The seine’s sides are then pulled together in a circular motion, eventually closing when the two parties meet. Seine fishing dates to the stone age when seines were woven from strip bark, vines, etc.

Two people can use a purse seine if you have the space and ability to displace the net in the water, plus the strength to pull it together. This can be done on shore or from a boat, if the two sides can be held steady and retrieved uniformly. Once the net is in place, the two parties work their way around to each other.

A small boat can be used to do this or if the water is shallow enough, two or more people can walk the seine around.

Commercial Purse Seining

Commercial operations use two boats to lay the net out and then pull the sides together. Purse seine nets for commercial purposes resemble individual seines but have much heavier weights that help the net form a scoop. A purse seine is usually laid out around an identified school of Menhaden and then the two boats that placed the seine work their way around until they meet.

Once the two parties meet, using either method, the net is closed and hauled in. In cases where the haul is large, a winch is used to pull the net onboard a fishing boat. If two people are working the net alone, the haul is drug up on deck or onto the shore for processing.

Snagging (Where Legal)

In some states, deliberately foul hooking a fish, even a bait fish, is illegal. If you try this method, make sure it is legal where you are fishing. The penalties for this type of fishing where it is prohibited can be steep. Many states consider it a combination of a natural resources violation as well as a cruelty to animals infraction.

This method also is not fool proof and can be frustrating until you learn the various tricks of the trade. If snagging Menhaden is legal where you are, here is how to do it.

The Equipment

The following is what you need to snag Menhaden:

  • Fishing pole
  • Fishing reel with moderately heavy line
  • Large lure with a big treble hook
  • Container to store any catch
  • Gloves to safely handle the Menhaden (they are very slippery and slimy)

Locate A School

More than with netting, when snagging a Menhaden, you must locate a school of them that are at the surface or just a few feet under. The best way to do this is to try and watch as much open water as possible. Look for multiple instances of flicking and then try to identify the silhouette of the school. Note how deep it appears to be.

Position The Boat

Look for a school that is flicking. Approach the school quietly, trying to get as close as possible. Position your boat at one edge of the school or in the middle if you can do so without the fish dispersing. When possible, drifting into the school is a wise idea because it minimizes the amount of activity that can spook the fish.

The Art Of Snagging

Once you are in place, cast your treble hooked lure out to the edge of the school. If the edge is too far away, try and get as close as you can. Let the lure drop to where the fish are and begin to rapidly retrieve the lure. Give it a yank every few feet.

If the school is big enough and the fish packed close enough, you will eventually hook a fish. It can take several tries. When retrieving your lure, tray and keep it in the middle, vertically, of the school of fish. This gives you the best chance of your lure running into several fish.

Snagging is not an optimal method of catching Menhaden. If, though, you are on your own and netting is not an option, it can be the only consistent method of catching the fish. Snagging works best to use if you are catching bait for yourself. If you are fishing with several individuals or need a lot of bait, snagging yields too little to be worth the time and effort.

Pound Net (Stationary Bait Trap)

A pound net is a type of fish trap. It is set in shallow water and fish swim into it and cannot swim out easily. A pound net usually is laid out to create a pen with netting on the sides and a removable and movable end on one end. When fish are in the trap, the movable end is brought down to the stationary side. The fish in the trap are then scooped into a holding tank with a hand net.

Processing Caught Menhaden

As the fish are being removed from nets, buckets, etc., one person must go through and evaluate each fish. Fish that are not Menhaden must be handled in accordance with your local or state law. This applies to sizes and types of fish.

Preserving Menhaden

Keep on ice, but not directly on them. Water softens the fish. Put netted fish in a container and then pack ice around that container.

The best approach is always to use the Menhaden when they are fresh and still alive. Catching Menhaden on the day you are fishing without wasting time trying to find them can prove challenging, however, which is why many anglers catch their Menhaden a day before they use them as bait for fishing.

Final Thoughts

Menhaden are popular sportfishing bait because predator gamefish love them. Catching Menhaden requires work, no matter what approach you choose. Any of the methods mentioned here give you the best chance possible at catching Menhaden and keeping them fresh