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Legend of the blueback herring

12/29/2006

COLUMBIA COUNTY, Ga. — To bass, they're the anchovies on the pizza. And bass like anchovies. Actually they're a cousin to the anchovy known as the blueback herring and they will likely be the most famous baitfish in the Bassmaster Elite Series this year.

At Clarks Hill Lake, the conventional wisdom holds that your success in catching big bass is related to how close you are staying to big balls of bluebacks.

Chances are that you don't have blueback herring in your local reservoir. The reason for that is that bluebacks are a saltwater species, much like the famous American shad on the Delaware River, who normally only venture into fresh water for spawning purposes.

But like the striped bass, blueback herring have made their way permanently into some freshwater lakes, either by impoundment (the building of dams and other structures) or by stocking, both legal and illegal.

The Jekyll and Hyde aspect of the fish would explain why bass anglers love them and fisheries managers are extremely wary.

The blueback can impose on a bass population during two different stages of life.

As younger, smaller fish they are voracious zooplankton feeders — filtering tiny organisms 24-7, an adaptation to living in open seas and constantly moving. It's at this time that they may be out-competing other species that need the plankton as well to grow to adulthood; species like shad and bass.

Then when the blueback grow larger, their appetites tend more toward the larvae and fry of other species and again, it's the bass that take the big hit.

But bass anglers love them because they seem to attract bass like no other baitfish.

Tournament leader Davy Hite tells a story about taking pro legends Guido and Dion Hibdon to a place named Dooley's Sport Shop in Lexington, South Carolina near Lake Murray.

A huge 10-pound bass was kept in a tank there and according to Hite, "he was fun to watch at feeding time because he was such a bulldog. Anyway, they had just fed him when we arrived. I talked the owner into feeding him again anyway.

"He threw a few shad minnows in there and the bass didn't even want to look at them. So, he went in the back and got a blueback herring and pitched it in there. That bass was all over it in a second, inhaled it and spit it out a few seconds later, eyeballs missing and everything. There's something about those bluebacks they can't resist."

So how did the bluebacks come to be in Clarks Hill Lake? No one seems to know for certain, but of course rumors abound. Most revolve around striper fishermen from other reservoirs bringing in bluebacks in the bait bucket and then releasing them when the fishing day was over.

But the most entertaining legend is the tale of a bait supply truck going down the highway one night and breaking down, incredibly, near the banks of Clarks Hill. Rather than allowing the cargo of blueback herring to die on the roadside, the compassionate driver released them into the reservoir and the rest is history.

Kind of improbable, but it makes a great story, sort of like the peanut butter truck running into the chocolate truck and creating Reese Cups.

But it really doesn't matter what the real story is. The bluebacks are here, 6 million in number now, by some estimates.

The genie is not going to be put back into the bottle, so the anglers are taking advantage of the bass that love anchovies on their pizzas.