Updated: April 28, 2023
"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!
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.
So it's always a special experience to see thousands of river herring back in our freshwater ponds and streams each spring!
Peak season is April and May.
It's impossible to say exactly when we'll see the first herring in our estuaries. Sometimes they start to show up in mid-March. Usually, though, we begin to see activity in early April.
As the month goes on and the water temperature warms, more and more schools of herring come in from the sea.
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.
Two species of river herring make the run to Cape Cod: alewife and
These are anadromous fish. In a nutshell, that means:
In addition to critters that want to eat them, the herring face other obstacles along their migration path ... like dams and large waterfalls that 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".
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!
In my humble opinion, these are the best places on Cape Cod to see the annual spring herring migration:
830 Stony Brook Road
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.
This location is also home to the historic Stony Brook Grist Mill & Museum.
The museum isn't open on a regular schedule until sometime in late June. But do spend a little time strolling around the grounds.
Stony Brook is a great place to visit any time of year!
810 Scenic Highway (Rt. 6)
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.
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.
The recreation area has picnic tables, park benches, visitor information, rest rooms, and free parking, too.
414 Main Street (Rt. 130)
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.
When you drive into the parking lot here, you'll notice that this is also the site of Mashpee Wampanoag Indian 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.
*Note: The Museum is open beginning in mid-April, by reservation only. You can visit the run any time.
2 Water Street
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.
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!
There are dozens more places around the Cape to see the herring migration.
Some are roadside fishways that you probably wouldn't notice as you drive by. Others are tucked back in Cape Cod's many acres of conservation lands.
Here are a few more to check out when the run is on:
Off Depot Street
The only reason I haven't included Bells Neck on my list of the best places on the Cape to see the herring run is: parking.
The west trailhead parking lot (the nearest parking to this Harwich herring run) is closed to vehicles from April 10 to June 15.
If you're up for a hike, parking is available at the east trailhead. From there, you'll find walking trails that go along the Reservoir and ultimately will bring you to the fish ladder.
Cotuit Rd.) & Rt. 28
Marstons Mills, MA
The herring in this fishway swim from Nantucket Sound into Prince Cove, then to Mill Pond and beyond to spawn.
The fish counts here are nowhere near as huge as they are at Stony Brook in Brewster. But this small-ish run is still worth checking out when you're in the area!
Parking is limited here - just a few spots on either side of Cotuit Road.
Watching the herring run 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, it's a very pretty walk through conservation lands and nature habitat to Santuit Pond Dam and fish ladder.
See the Santuit Pond Reserve Trail Map and Guide, here.
142 Rt. 28
West Yarmouth, MA
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: Be sure to watch for the resident swans while you're there!
Herring Brook Road
I haven't been out to Eastham to see this run in person. But my friend who lives in Eastham tells me she reliably sees fish here every year.
Access is via walking trails through town-owned Nickerson Property conservation lands.
See the town's page for info about Nickerson Property trails and parking.