Short of jigging up your own herring we have three choices in buying herring. Seasonally you can buy freshly bagged herring on ice in areas like the early fall Buoy 10 fishery. But most of us are buying frozen herring either trayed and bagged by size, or frozen and vacuum packed. As owner of Pro-Cure I get to fish with a lot of top guides, and I can tell you very few of them fish fresh bagged herring on ice. They haven't been starved, so they are usually soft baits, and hard to keep on the hooks, especially in heavy river or tidal currents. And the scales are so delicate that by the time you have a bait plug-cut and rigged there are more scales on your hands than the fish. This situation can be remedied slightly by opening the bag of fresh herring and sprinkling in a very healthy shot of dry Pro-Cure Brine 'N Bite powder. Then add a fistful of non-iodized salt, seal the bag and place it back on ice. If you give your bait an hour or longer in the dry powder and salt it will significantly improve the fishability of fresh bait.
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Most of us will fish frozen herring. It comes in 6 basic sizes, and these vary by processor and seasonal harvest. Basically the smallest sizes are color coded by label or print on the package. Orange and Red are the smallest, and may be fished whole, as they are usually too small to plug-cut. The next size up is Green label, and these baits are perfect for ocean Coho and Chinook, and river salmon too. In fact, probably the two most popular sizes for plug-cutting are Greens, and one size larger Blue label. I hesitate to give sizes, as the sizes vary by processor and size availability. Many times I'll hear guides say they are fishing big Greens or small Blues, meaning the Blues that were packaged could almost be big Greens. Or big Greens could almost be small Blues. The next larger size is Purples, and the largest are Black label. For many years anglers had to have Purple or Black label herring to fish the river mouths for the bigger fall Chinook, but quite honestly I rarely see anything larger than a Blue label fished anymore. I think part of that is the returning fall Chinook are smaller in size, and the 50- and 60-pounders of yesteryear are rarely seen today. Also the larger-size herring are hard to find, and much more costly to fish. The average tray for frozen herring costs between $4.50 and $7.00 a tray, and with Purple and Black label herring you get 5 to 6 on a tray. With Purples you'll get 6 to 8. With Blues and Greens you'll usually get 10 to 12 baits per tray, so if you can get bit on the smaller sizes why waste the money?
Top, a Green label herring; Middle, a Blue label; and Bottom, a Purple label herring. The Black label is even larger than a Purple. These are the four most common sizes for plug-cutting bait.
Having the most freshly harvested and processed herring can be critical in a tough bite. I will regularly have guides call me and say "ABC processor just got in a bunch of Green label herring that were caught three weeks ago. Do you want a case?" Now if this phone call comes in late January, and you plan on starting your plug-cut herring fishing on the Columbia in mid March for springers, you'd better jump on some bait. However, if you are not sure of when the bait was harvested, or how long it will take you to go through it, always go with the vacuum-packed frozen bait over the bagged frozen bait. Just like when you vacuum pack beef or chicken, the food in the vacuum pack stays fresher much longer than bagged or paper-wrapped food, and so does bait. If you plug-cut a vacuum-packed herring processed 6 months ago it will cut bloody red, and smell fresh caught. That same bait bagged will smell stale, and the internal organs and blood will look more like coffee milk than bloody red. If you are in a wide-open ocean Coho bite you may get bit, but fishing the bubble at our ocean inlets, or upriver, where the fish are picky biters, tired old bait is far from ideal. So when you have the chance always go with trayed vacuum-packed bait over the bagged, unless you personally know when the bagged bait was harvested. Again, if you are going to consume freshly harvested bait right away it can be trayed and bagged and frozen with no problem. If you know when the bait was harvested and you plan on fishing it right away, frozen trayed in bags will work just fine. Under any other conditions go with the trayed vacuum-packed bait for freshness.
Tired old bait (top) versus freshly harvested vacuum-packed tray bait. You can get by with tired old bait for ocean Coho on many days, but for a bubble fishery, or upriver fishery, where Chinook are picky biters, using old bait puts you at an extreme disadvantage. It your herring don't cut blood red you shouldn't be fishing them.
Always buy starved herring. When herring are netted they are usually feeding. Their bellies are full of food, and they are soft. The best herring is starved before processing. The bait is put in floating ocean cages in areas where plankton and other floating food is not available to the penned bait. The bait is forced to live off of its stored fat, and its belly tightens, and so do the scales. After starving their baits the best processors hand brail the baits into 5-gallon pails, and then the bait is instantly electrocuted. The more gently the bait is handled, the more scales stay on the bait. This is critical in selecting bait because when the bait is plug-cut and it rolls, it flashes from the sunlight's reflection on the bait's scales. If most of the scales are knocked off due to poor processing there will be no flash as the herring rolls. More flash means more visibility from further distances for predator fish like salmon. So when selecting trayed bait look for those baits with the least scales missing. Also make sure you look for herring that have slender, flat bellies, not round and cigar shaped. Many folks will tell you when selecting frozen herring look for black eyes, but I have seen the freshest baits with white dots on their eyes after they have been frozen. Look for baits that have snowy white bellies, and avoid baits with yellow bellies, yellow or tannish fins and tails. Avoid baits with dried-out, shredded fins and tails. Any yellowing or discoloration means older bait. However if there is a shortage of freshly processed herring, or no herring at all, sometimes we are forced to fish old bait, or bait missing scales. If that is the case we'll cover how to make that tired old bait fish as well as possible in just a bit.