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Rhode Island

Saltwater Fishing

Saltwater Fishing

Marine Baitfish of Rhode Island

By Thomas E. Angell, Principal Marine Biologist,
RI DEM Division of Marine Fisheries

“Baitfish” are small-sized forage fish caught or purchased by recreational and commercial anglers to attract larger predatory fish, particularly gamefish.

They are typically common in a particular region or location and reproduce rapidly and prolifically, making them abundant in supply and easy to catch. Baitfish are often short-lived, and their population abundance can fluctuate rapidly, but can often recover quickly when depleted. They are an important part of the food chain and are preyed upon by predatory fish, birds, and mammals. Regulations may exist to prevent overexploitation, such as in Rhode Island, and studies by the RI Division of Marine Fisheries (RIDMF) and RI Division of Fish and Wildlife (RIDFW) monitor the health of local baitfish populations. A variety of methods are used to capture baitfish including devices such as minnow traps, small beach seines, gillnets, cast nets, lift nets, and hook & line. Baitfish can also be attracted by using a light which draws zooplankton, a primary food source for many baitfish. Many of the more commonly used baitfish species inhabit shallow waters along the edge of shorelines, in salt marshes, and around man-made objects like docks. The best baitfish species to use depends to a large degree on the species being targeted. To harvest finfish or squid for use as bait, a valid recreational saltwater fishing license is required (visit https://rio.ri.gov to purchase license). Additionally, the possession limit for any marine finfish species that is not regulated by size, possession, and/or season in RI Marine Fisheries Regulations, Part 3 - Finfish is two (2) quarts per person per day (https://rules.sos.ri.gov/regulations/part/250-90-00-6).

Surveys conducted by the RIDMF since 1979 have identified at least twenty-eight (28) species of baitfish/forage fish occurring in RI waters. Additionally, since 2014, RIDMF has examined the stomach contents of black sea bass, bluefish, scup, summer flounder, striped bass, summer flounder, tautog, weakfish (squeteague), and winter flounder. This article will highlight a selection of common baitfish species with information about their distribution and ecology. The harvest of river herring (alewife and blueback) is prohibited, so although they are important forage fish species, they will not be included in this article as baitfish.

Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus)

One of the most abundant fish species in the world, the range of Atlantic herring is limited to cold and temperate waters of the Northern Hemisphere on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. They prefer pelagic waters from 33–52°F, and in the western North Atlantic, they range from southwestern Greenland and northern Labrador to Block Island, RI and are occasionally seen as far south as South Carolina. They appear in large schools around Block Island Sound from January–March and can be found in the coldest water near the shore and disperse as waters become warmer. When present, this species is widely distributed in RI waters. Due to their abundance and schooling behavior, they are an extremely important forage species for nearly all pelagic predators including many different species of fish, whales, porpoises, birds, and sharks. Since Atlantic herring are in RI waters during the winter months, their contribution as prey for popular recreational fish species that are usually in RI waters during warmer months is somewhat limited. They accounted for 6.4% of the baitfish species found in striped bass stomach contents, and 2.8% of those found in summer flounder.

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus)

Also called “bunker” (or “peanut bunker” for juveniles) and “pogy”, menhaden are a wide-ranging schooling fish found from Florida to Nova Scotia and play a major role in the ecosystem as food for a wide variety of marine predators including fish, birds, and marine mammals. Menhaden were found in the stomach contents of nearly all fish species examined by RIDMF, including black sea bass, bluefish, scup, striped bass, and summer flounder. It is a major prey item of bluefish and striped bass, accounting for 41% and 36% of the forage fish species consumed, respectively. Menhaden are migratory, with adult fish arriving in late spring (May) on their annual migration, moving north and inshore during summer and then moving south and offshore during the autumn (October) and winter. They usually reach peak abundance in RI waters during August-September and are widely distributed during their stay. Menhaden prefer water temperatures above 50°F, although recently menhaden have been found in RI waters during the winter months (December–March) in water temperatures below 50°F.

Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia)

Other common names include “green smelt”, “sand smelt”, “shiner”, and “whitebait”. This oceanodromous fish ranges from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Canada to northeastern Florida. They are mostly found swimming in brackish waters, such as in the mouths of rivers and streams that connect to the ocean. These small schooling fish have been seen gathering in seagrass beds, which can harbor them from predation and provide safety for spawning. They tolerate a wide range of water temperature, from 33–76°F. During the summer, most are found in the shallows along the shoreline, or around docks and flotsam. During winter, they swim to deeper water to avoid cold temperatures. The Atlantic silverside serves an important role as food for a variety of commercial and sport fishes such as bluefish, mackerels, striped bass, spiny dogfish, and weakfish, as well as many shore birds. It is a widely distributed, native resident species of RI waters and has been found abundantly in most all RIDMF surveys over time. This species accounted for 0.09% of the forage fish species found in bluefish stomach contents, and 0.7% of those found in striped bass.

Butterfish (Peprilus triacanthus)

Butterfish, or “butters”, are native to temperate and subtropical waters off the east coast of North America, with the highest populations occurring from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. They are described as being benthopelagic or semi-pelagic, inhabiting marine and brackish environments near the bottom or in the water column and travelling in schools. They prefer areas with sandy bottoms and can tolerate water temperatures between 42–76.5°F. During summer months, the population moves close to shore and occupies water depths of 65–180 feet, returning to deeper offshore waters at depths of 650–750 feet in the winter. Butterfish accounted for 2.9% of the forage fish in bluefish stomach content examinations, 4.3% in striped bass, and 3.1% in summer flounder.

Mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus)

“Mummies” are non-migratory fish found along sheltered shores in temperate climates of the western North Atlantic from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to northeast Florida. They abound in the tidal creeks in salt marshes, on the shores of our harbors, and in the brackish water at the mouths of our streams and estuaries, particularly in little muddy pools, creeks, and ditches due to their tolerance of large fluctuations in temperature, oxygen, and salinity. In Rhode Island, ‘mummies’ are generally common to abundant in brackish and marine waters throughout the state. RIDMF stomach content examinations only found mummichogs in striped bass, accounting for only 0.4% of the baitfish/forage fish consumed.

White mullet (Mugil curema)

Also known as “silver mullet” or “silverside mullet”, this catadromous species inhabits coastal waters of tropical, subtropical, and temperate zones from the surface to depths of nearly 1,000 feet. It is usually found in shallow waters on sandy coasts and in littoral pools, but also occurs over muddy bottoms of brackish lagoons and estuaries, on coral reefs, and sometimes in rivers. Adults form schools and prefer water temperatures between 70–82.5°F. In the western Atlantic, they range from Cape Cod south to Argentina, including Bermuda, with strays observed as far north as Nova Scotia. Although occasionally eaten by people, white mullets are primarily used for bait due to their small size. Finfish predators of white mullets include crevalle jack, flounders, red drum, sharks, snook, spotted sea trout, and tarpon. White mullets are best caught on a hook baited with a lump of bread! RIDMF stomach content examinations did not find white mullets as prey in any of the species studied.

Longfin squid (Doryteuthis pealeii)

Though not a finfish, longfin squid are a popular forage and bait species. Commonly called “Boston squid”, “loligo”, or “winter squid”, they are found from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Venezuela. In the northwest Atlantic Ocean, they are most abundant between Georges Bank and Cape Hatteras, NC. Adults live over mud or sand/mud substrates of the continental shelf and upper continental slope in waters as deep as 1,300 feet. Adults and juveniles migrate vertically in the water column, remaining near the seabed during the day and moving toward the surface at night. North of Cape Hatteras, squid migrate seasonally, moving offshore during late autumn to spend the winter in warmer waters along the continental shelf, and return inshore during the spring. They are a key prey species for a variety of pelagic and demersal fish species, as well as marine mammals and diving birds. There is no recreational size or possession limit for longfin squid in RI state waters. RIDMF stomach content examinations found longfin squid accounting for 13.3% of the forage fish species found in black sea bass, 22% in bluefish, 48% in scup, 3.2% in striped bass, and 27.2% in summer flounder.