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Herring Runs on Cape Cod

Updated: March 9, 2024

"They're baaaaack!" Fans of herring runs on Cape Cod know exactly what those two words mean ...

It's time to watch one of Mother Nature's most fascinating shows!

People alongside a rock-lined brook looking into the swift-moving waterThe Herring Run is On!

Read on to learn all about the run, what time of year it happens, and the best places to see it in person.

What is the Herring Run?

Simply put, it's the migration of river herring from the ocean to fresh waters where they'll spawn.

The "run" is a long and dangerous journey for these fish. Many fall prey to larger fish, hungry sea birds, river otters, and other hazards along the way.

White seagull sitting on the bank of a brookWaiting for Lunch to Swim By

So it's always a special experience to see thousands of river herring back in our freshwater ponds and streams each spring!

What Months Do the Herring Run on Cape Cod?

Peak season is April and May.

It's impossible to say exactly when we'll see the first herring in our estuaries.

Some years the first "scouts" show up in mid- to late March. Usually, though, it's early April.

As the month goes on and the water temperature warms, more and more schools of herring come in from the sea.

Hundreds of fish tightly schooled in clear waterPrime Time!

The run peaks in early to mid-May. Then it begins to trail off as the adult herring begin their long swim back down our river systems and out to sea.

The babies stay behind to spend the summer months growing,  and trying to avoid being gobbled up by hungry seagulls and great blue herons!

Then, in late summer and early fall, large schools of juvenile river herring make their way down our local rivers and out to sea.

About the Herring

Two species of river herring make the run to Cape Cod: alewife and blueback herring.

Photo of fish with caption "Alewife"
Photo of fish with caption "Blueback Herring"

These are anadromous fish. In a nutshell, that means:

  • they're born in fresh water;
  • the juvenile herring spend most of their lives in the Atlantic Ocean;
  • then, when they're fully mature (at about 4 years old), the adult herring return to fresh water to spawn - and the life cycle continues.

Interesting Fact ...

Alewives and bluebacks spawn in the same bodies of water where they were born.

Navigating the Obstacles

In addition to critters that want to eat them, the herring face other obstacles along their migration path. Dams and large waterfalls can slow or stop their progress up the Cape's streams and rivers.

This is where fish ladders come into play.

What is a fish ladder?

It's a man-made detour that allows the fish to avoid those obstacles.

There are many different types of fish ladders. A common style on the Cape is made up of a series of small pools and waterfall "steps".

Water flowing over narrow waterfalls, boulders lining the brookClose-up of a Fish Ladder

The herring power-swim up each step, then rest in the pool above until they're ready to power-swim up the next step.

Every now and then, you'll see a particularly ambitious herring leap from one level to the next.

Either way, whether you see the river herring swim or jump, it's awesome to watch!

Best Places to See the Cape Cod Herring Run

The best spots to see the annual migration have two things in common: 

  • lots of herring to see; and

  • plenty of room along the fishway to watch the herring making their way up the ladders.

Based on those criteria, here are my faves ...

Stony Brook Herring Run

830 Stony Brook Road
Brewster, MA

You couldn't ask for a more picture-perfect setting than Stony Brook to watch river herring schooling and climbing!

With walking paths and places to relax alongside the stream, it's not surprising that Stony Brook is a very popular place in springtime.

Two ladies sitting alongside brook watching the herring runEarly May at Stony Brook

This location is also home to the historic Stony Brook Grist Mill & Museum.

The museum and mill won't be open on a regular schedule until late June. But do spend a little time strolling around the grounds enjoying the spring blooms and wildlife. 

Stream running alongside mill building, water wheel on side of mill, lush foliage with red beach roses in foregroundGrist Mill & Herring Run Property

2024 Spring Update: Stony Brook Grist Mill & Museum will hold a special open house on Saturday, May 4th, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. for the annual Brewster in Bloom Festival.

Come see the Gristmill's water wheel in action and watch the millers grinding fresh corn meal the old-fashioned way!

*Read about: Stony Brook Grist Mill & Museum

Herring Run Recreation Area at Cape Cod Canal

810 Scenic Highway (Rt. 6)
Bourne, MA

The name says it all!

Bournedale Herring Run Recreation Area is a perfect spot to stop and stretch your legs when you're traveling along Scenic Highway (Rt. 6) on your way to or from the Cape.

Two children looking at Cape Cod Canal waters, sign warning not to disturb or take herring from the CanalKids love seeing the fish!

River herring come into the Canal from Buzzards Bay and Cape Cod Bay. Here they begin their miles-long "climb" upstream to their birthplaces in and around Plymouth.

You'll find lots of easily accessible space along the fish ladder to view the migration.

Walk down to the Canal to see the fish coming into the ladder. Or watch from above near street level.

Walkway alongside herring run, man looking down at fish in the water

The recreation area has picnic tables, park benches, visitor information, rest rooms, and free parking, too.

*Read about: Herring Run Recreation Area

Mashpee River Herring Run

414 Main Street (Rt. 130)
Mashpee, MA

In recent years, this has been one of the most prolific herring runs on the Cape.

In 2019, an estimated 300,000+ herring made their way from Nantucket Sound up the Mashpee River to spawn.

Narrow concrete structure containing  flowing waterMashpee River Fishway

When you drive into the parking lot here, you'll notice that this is also the site of Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum.

Small shingled building with "Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum" sign in frontMashpee Wampanoag Museum

The Wampanoags' history on Cape Cod goes back thousands of years. Guided by current-day members of the tribe, tours of this fascinating little museum bring that history to life in a very personal way.

The Museum is open beginning in mid-April, by reservation only. You can visit the run any time.

*See: Wampanoag Museum website

Interesting Fact ...

Tribal members are the only ones allowed to harvest river herring. It's illegal in the state of Massachusetts for anyone else to touch, bother or take alewives and bluebacks from MA waters.

Dexter's Gristmill Fish Ladder

2 Water Street
Sandwich, MA

No doubt the herring are loving their recently renovated ladder at  Dexter's Grist Mill in historic Sandwich Village. Everyone who watches them migrate into Shawme Pond is loving it, too!

On-street parking is limited here. That said, in April and May (before Memorial Day weekend) it's usually pretty easy to find an open spot on a side street.

Historic grist mill building with weathered shingles, water wheel, surrounded by green trees and lawnDexter's Grist Mill & Herring Run Site

Even if you have to walk a bit to reach the Grist Mill site, take heart. Historic Sandwich Village is so quaint and pretty. You'll enjoy the walk!

Bells Neck Conservation Area

Off Depot Street
Harwich, MA

Serene scene of green trees along a riverbank, wooden bench and herring ladder in the foregroundHerring Ladder at Bells Neck Conservation Lands

Thousands of herring migrate through here each spring. And the serenity of this location can't be beat.

The only downside to seeing the run at Bells Neck is parking.

To prevent over-crowding around this small-ish fishway, the nearest parking lot is closed to vehicles from April 10 to June 15. 

So, where to park? Bells Neck Conservation Area's east trailhead stays open throughout the run. From there, you'll find walking trails that go along the Reservoir and ultimately will bring you to the fish ladder.

*Read about: Parking areas & walking trails at Bell's Neck.

More Cape Cod Herring Runs

There are dozens more places around the Cape to watch the herring migration.

These locations certainly deserve an "honorable mention":

Marstons Mills Herring Run

Intersection of Cotuit Rd. & Rt. 28
Marstons Mills, MA

marstons mills herring run

The herring in this fishway swim from Nantucket Sound into Prince Cove, then up the Marstons Mills River to spawn in Mill Pond.

You won't see nearly as many herring here as you'll see at the Canal, Stony Brook and Mashpee River runs. But this location is  still worth checking out if you're in the area during the migration.

Parking is limited to just a few spots on either side of Cotuit Road. (Be careful crossing the street. This is a busy intersection!) Then it's just a very short walk down a pretty, stream-side path to the fish ladder.

Santuit Pond Preserve

Route 130
Mashpee, MA

Watching the herring go up the Santuit River to Santuit Pond is also a "hike-to" affair.

Parking is available at 117 Main Street (Route 130) in Mashpee. From there, take a leisurely walk through conservation lands and nature habitat to Santuit Pond Dam and fish ladder.

*See: Santuit Pond Reserve Trail Map and Guide.

Baxter Grist Mill Herring Run

142 Rt. 28
West Yarmouth, MA

Narrow, multi-level waterfall bordered by hand-stacked stone walls and wooden fence,   alongside a shingled mill buildingBaxter Mill & Herring Run

This peaceful oasis on busy Rt. 28 in West Yarmouth underwent a major re-do in 2019.

The 1710-vintage mill was renovated. The dam was repaired. And a new fish ladder was installed to help the herring make it from Nantucket Sound, up Mill Creek, to the herring pond behind the grist mill.

There's a good-sized parking lot near the intersection of Main Street (Rt. 28) and Mill Pond Road.

*Tip: Look for the resident swans that nest on the pond. The babies are usually swimming around with mom and dad by mid- to late May.

White adult swans and young gray cygnets swimming on blue water pondSwans on Baxter's Mill Pond in May

Eastham Herring Run

Herring Brook Road
Eastham, MA

I haven't been to Eastham to see the run at this location. But my friend who lives near Herring Brook tells me she reliably sees fish here every year.

I'll take a spin out there this spring and let you know what I find. Stay tuned!

Interesting Fact ...

When we see herring in our Cape Cod waters, our springtime run of Striped Bass is never far behind!

*Just remember: it's illegal to use river herring as bait.*

More about sport fishing on Cape Cod ...

Map of
Cape Cod Herring Run Locations

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