Curing, Dying & Usage of
Herring / Shrimp for 
Salmon Bait

 

 

 

Not many years ago most everyone just put a gob of eggs on a hook, or a herring on a two hook slider leader and started soaking it in a river or the ocean.  It seems now that with all the other fisherperson competition and lesser fish in the water, that those of us that still use the old method, may come home at the end of the day with a clean smelling fish-box.  Or at least we see other fish being caught and later find out the fisherperson was using a secret sauce bait cure.  You even find some who transfer the contents of a cure/scent into a plain bottle to help keep the secret.  Kind of gets you in to raising your anxiety level, or to at least wondering, just how much of this is BS and what cures are effective or not.  Many of us are old enough that we would never live long enough with modern fishing seasons to effectively test them all.   So what is one to do? 

 

Fresh Bait ; Some bait shops sell "Fresh Bait" which can be taken from a live tank and bagged into plastic bags of a dozen per bag.  However the availability of this kind of herring/anchovy will be limited depending on the location.   Those that prefer this type of bait seem to prefer it over frozen 5 or 6 to 1.  However if you cut plug, it does not retain the same spin for long, being softer.  Using fresh bait will either be best to use it as a whole rigged herring OR in a helmet or "Bonnet".  And it needs to be kept on ice, used up or brined down.  So why not just go for frozen to start with?

 

Well some of us happen to be in an area where we can jig our own bait (herring or anchovy).  Here we have a different bait in that commercial bait is starved, so there is no food in the stomach which prevents belly burn id you just brine them down.   You will find that the best luck in using your own jigged herring is to cut plug them immediately and placing in a cold brine (salt, powdered milk and bluing) for up to 6 hours.  If you have the space, it works well to keep the brine and the herring in the freezer.  A strong brine will not freeze in the normal home freezer and will keep the baits fro a long time.

However if you have limited space in your freezer, then remove the cut plugs from the brine and roll them in borax (the same as used for curing eggs).   You can then put these boraxed cut plugs in freezer bags with extra borax with a dozen per bag.   It has been experienced to have good luck keeping them boraxed this way for up to month and found they still fish very well.   If on a fishing trip, the cut plugs treated with borax will keep and fish well for several days without freezing, just keeping them in an iced cooler is fine. 
 

 

Anchovy are smaller so no cut plugging them.  They also belly burn, so I have found that use them fresh, but placed in a iced cooler ASAP and then use them the same day as they do not really keep well even if brined.

 

Why Brine ? ; Herring brine is an important process prior to cut plug fishing.  Herring brine will stiffen the bait, improving its roll/spin and the length of time that it remains undamaged on the hook.  This brine can also improve the color and shine of the bait making it more attractive to fish.   It is important to maximize your advantage over the fish when out on the water, this may put that one or two extra fish in your boat each time.  Effective herring brining is one of the tricks that can tip an advantage in the anglers direction.

Chemical Changes ;  If you use biochemistry when looking at the herring bait curing process, the reason for using the brine process is interesting to understand what is going on with herring and the roles different ingredients play out.  When any meat product is exposed to salt, the area of higher salt content will tend to draw water molecules from the area of lower salt content substance.  In the case of herring, the moisture in the fish's flesh will be drawn out into the high salinity solution.  This is what happens in herring brines, in smoked salmon, and other processes where a salt brine is used.  As the water is drawn from the bait fish, this hardens the meat and preserves the bait.  After bringing, this bait will last longer, stay tighter on the hooks, resist tearing/damage, and produce a better spin in the water.  The use of brines as preservatives has long been used for foods such as pickles, cured bacon/hams and in preservation of salmon roe for river fishing.

 

Selecting Herring as Bait ;  Herring is commonly available in frozen packages from a variety of suppliers at your local bait shops.  You want to choose the size of the bait to match the local bait fish normally found in the intended fishing area (Match the Hatch).  Frozen prepackaged bait is packaged in different color packages designating different size of bait.  These packages will contain different numbers of bait depending on size.  And price is usually the same for all sizes of packages (about the  same weight however).

HERRING SIZE PACKAGE LABEL COLOR NUMBER
PER TRAY

APPROXIMATE HOOK SIZE

  3-4" Orange label   1/0 - 2/0
  4-5" Red label     12   2/0 - 3/0
  5-6" Green label     10   3/0 - 4/0
  7-8" Blue label      8   4/0 - 5/0
  8-9" Purple label   5/0 - 6/0
  9-14" Black label (horse herring)     5/0  - 6/0

 

The above hook sizes only apply to when you are using cut plug or whole herring as bait and do not really apply to being attached to lures.  Smaller baits need a hook size/weight to match it's ability to give the desired action.  Larger baits seem more forgiving. 

 

Then once you decide on the size, look closely at the bait before you purchase.  When checking the bait, look at the packaging, (other than fresh bait).  Vacuum sealed herring are often in the best condition. The type of tray that the bait is on also is worth considering.  Cardboard trays are being phased out because the frozen herring tends to stick to the cardboard.  Plastic trays like you would find meat on in the supermarket are ideal.  OK, you have found your size of bait, now look closely at this bait to get an idea of how old it is.  Some shops will re-sell last years bait until it sells out and then restock the new stuff.  These shops you should try to avoid if possible.  Fresher bait is always preferable.  One method where you can tell old bait is there will usually be a lot if ice crystals inside the package. Also the fish may look in poor condition having it's eyes being cloudy or there if there is any brownish color on the bait. 

 

If you buy vacuum sealed herring, do not just take it out of the freezer and let it thaw in the sealed plastic bag.  Make sure to cut a hole in the package to depressurize it before thawing, otherwise the vacuum pressure will make mush out of the herring as it thaws and pull blood into the eyes.  Obviously if you take the bait out and transfer it into another container for curing, this cutting the bag is of little consequences.

 

Bait Cures ; Curing and scent may give some fisherpersons an edge, however knowledge of the area and experience is also invaluable.  So just where does curing and scent, even dying your baits come into the picture?  How important is it really?  That I guess is the $64,000 question So just where does the uninitiated fisherperson begin?

 

I have fished many years, have done a lot of research trying to understand and improve my chances when on the water with a rod in hand.  I have also been on guide boats where they try to put forth that they have a secret dipping sauce, or cure that puts them ahead of the others and is why you should hire them.  Other guides are more subtle, to even cleaning their lures right in front of you with a rag that unknowing to you has been dipped in their "Their Secret Sauce".

 

You can go onto some of the internet forums you see many different ideas for curing herring, from just a dry salt pack, or simple brine, to very complicated cures, or to buying a prepared commercial brine.  All can work, and if any works for you, go for it.  But do you wonder as you are setting in a Hog-Line on the Columbia River fishing for Springers, when others around you catch fish and you don't.  Is it your bait or are you not in the salmon travel lane, OR POSSIBLY BOTH?   You can also go to Sportsman Shows and talk to the brine cure company salesmen.  After a bout of this, your brain may not be able to absorb it all (kind of like listening to multiple Snake oil salespersons).  So who, and to what amount do you believe?    

 

As mentioned above, herring brines perform several key functions that act to increase both durability and fish appeal.  Increased durability is achieved by using a substance within the brine to draw excess moisture out of  the bait (this usually being salt).  Early brining methods commonly utilized little more than super saturated salt water, or straight dry packing baits in salt, while newer methods may use sulfites or other preservatives.  How high the concentration of salt in the brine is plays heavily into how fast this curing process takes place.  Finding the perfect balance may take a lot of experimenting, but the results are well worth the effort.  One old and true method is if it floats a golf ball size potato, you are about right.  Firm baits when used in plug cutting will hold a solid bevel cut better and contribute to a desired spin.  They will also withstand more prolonged exposure to water pressure while being trolled without tearing the belly or pulling free of the hooks, where uncured baits will not last as long.

Another situation with herring, is scale retention.  Herring scales are larger in comparison to other fish sizes and if not set by a cure, with handling, (when baiting) they easily become loosened and can fall off.  Though this loss of scales does not affect the action of your bait or cur down on the natural scent of the bait, it can limit the visibility to nearby salmon.  With each revolution of the bait's spin, the bright scales make strobe like flashes in the water, giving more attraction to salmon in the area.  When you lose scales, you also lose this attraction.

Quality brines will help set these fragile scales securely into the skin, while also retaining live bait reflectivity.  It has been found that along with salt, that adding powdered milk, borax or laundry whiteners will all increase scale durability and brightness.   Powdered milk is used to set the scales as it contains Lactic Acid, which in this instance, act like Tannic Acid.  Borax has long been used as a preservative for salmon eggs.  Mrs. Stewart's laundry bleach helps to retain the scale brightness.  Then some also add Baking Soda which helps the bait retain it's vibrant colors along with killing any bacteria that can lead to deterioration.  Many may also add in this mix a favorite scent or two, usually Anise or Garlic.  If you decide on Anise, get the pure stuff from a Pharmacy instead of any diluted for the grocery isle.

 

Ultra Violet ; This cure has become very popular in recent years, especially with the more competitiveness we encounter.  If you do not at least try it on a lure or added to a brine, you may well be missing out on the catching part.  One thing to remember is that Ultra Violetness needs sunlight to become visible, therefore using it in low light or turbid conditions gains you nothing as compared to luminous coatings.

 
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TRIED AND TRUE HOME BREW CURES

 

Long before commercially produced bait brines were available, dedicated anglers played garage chemists, experimenting with everything from laundry additives to cooking spices in order to create unique and effective brines.  The following cures are a few Pacific Northwest favorites.

 

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The Simplest Brine of all

1/2 gallon water

Kosher salt (enough to float a golf ball size potato)

1/2 cup Baking Soda. 

 

Thaw the bait in the above brine solution.  The salt toughens the skin, which keeps the bait together longer on the hook.   The baking soda helps the baitfish retain its vibrant silver and white colors and kills any bacteria that can lead to deterioration. 
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The Kitchen Sink

2 quarts distilled water
2 cups rock salt
1 cup Carnation dry milk
1 cup borax
1 Tbsp MSG, Accent brand in the spice isle
1 Tbsp Mrs. Wrights bluing
1 teaspoon pure vanilla

Notes -
This cure has a little of everything and is sure to stand out in a crowd, and will cure up to six dozen herring.

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Toby Wyatt 2 step

1 gallon zip top bag
1 cup non iodized salt
1 16 oz. bottle of bottled water
½ bottle Pautzke Nectar, blue or chartreuse

Notes --
Mix all ingredients in the bag, then add up to two dozen herring and refrigerate for 24 hours. After 24 hours, remove herring from the brine and plug cut, removing the guts, then place
back into the brine for an additional 24 hours.

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Rob Endsley's End All

2 ½ gallons of water
3 Tbsp of Mrs. Stewarts Liquid bluing
4 cups non iodized salt (canning/pickling)
1 cup powdered milk
2 Tbsp of pure anise or garlic, Pautzke Liquid Krill

Notes ---
A great brine designed to maximize lesser grade, frozen baits which will be trolled. The listed quantities will brine up to twelve dozen baits.


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Dick Dennis' "Simple Suggi"

3/4 quart water saltwater
1 cup non iodized salt
½ cup powdered non fat dry milk
½ cup 20 Mule Team borax

Notes ---
Place ingredients in a one quart wide mouth mason jar and fill three-quarters full with saltwater (optimal) or distilled water. Shake well to mix. Plug cut one to two dozen herring and remove the guts, then add to the mixture and place in refrigerator over night.

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Some of the above formulas were snagged off the 2012 Spring issue of the Salmon Steelheader Journal

 

 

There are a number of commercial cures on the market, most need to need a 24 hour soak time, others not so much, costs can run from $2 per tray of herring to $7.  The $7 one is undiluted used straight out of the bottle, while the others can require a mix with pure water.   Another feature of many commercially available brines is some have variety of  bright colors and even ultraviolet (UV) enhancement. There are also numerous commercially available bait dyes that can be added to about any existing cures or home recipes to create a more vivid attractiveness.

 

In 2014 I was introduced to a newer brine cure to me, which really makes a difference as far as toughness.  This is "Magic Brine" and bought off the internet.  It has made a believer out of me.  I have not tried all the commercial brines, but enough that I was not really in love with some that I had tried for my situation.  Therefore, I am not going to make a recommendation, but will only name a few of them and give a brief factory sales pitch, you can do your own testing.

 

PauTzke Fire Brine™     Size available 32 oz.  Colors available (6)  MSRP $5.99    www.pautzke.com
Yet another addition to the popular Fire line of baits, scents and cures by bait-guru’s Pautzke Bait Co., Fire brine™ packs a special blend of  scents, color and preservatives into a pre-mixed, easy to use one step brine.  The only step: just add bait.

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Mike's Brite & Tight 3 in 1 Herring Formula    Size available 32 oz.  Colors available (5)   MSRP $6.99   www.atlasmikes.com

The Brite & Tight 3-in-1 Herring Formula from Mike’s® is another great one step solution to simplified bait brining. Available in vibrant blue, green, chartreuse and red, as well as clear for natural baits, the 32 oz. bottles contain enough brine for three dozen herring. An added benefit is that directions are given on how to re-use the brine for multiple batches
of bait by simply re-charging the solution with a little non-iodized salt, making it very economical.

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Pro-Cure BRINE N' BITE Complete Bait Cure   Size available 16 oz.  Colors available (4)   MSRP $6.99   www.pro-cure.com

Well known Pro-Cure has taken its proven Brine N’ Bite powder a step further, eliminating the need for measuring and mixing. The new Brine N’ Bite Complete Bait Brine is a veritable cocktail of bite-inducing salmon attractants including UV enhancement, vivid color pigments, scale brighteners and amino acids. Each 16-ounce bottle contains enough brine to cure two dozen herring, or mix with two cups of non-chlorinated water for up to four dozen herring.

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Baitmasters Magic Brine   Size available 8 oz. or 8#  Colors available (1)   MSRP $2.00 8 oz.  $8.00  8#   www.baitmasters.com/store/images/cartpics/brine_review.pdf

Magic Brine is an all natural brining powder that works with all baitfish.  It provides excellent firm baits with great scale retention and natural sheen.  Another plus is that brining takes only 4 hours.  Producing great looking natural baits, you can easily add commercially available scents and dyes should you feel like tweaking things a bit.

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What really put it over the top for me is that during the 2015 salmon season, I have been using this Magic Brine for two years and can highly recommend it because of the following.  I park my 23' travel trailer close to my fishing area.  But this year between my wife's medical issues, doctors appointments, and a whole slew of family reunions and the weather, I was gone from fishing for 10 days.  The morning of my last day, some of my 110 Volt receptacles in my trailer were dead (because of a GFI receptacle I found out later) .  I was close to the end of my season and wind blew us off that morning.  I had other obligations so called it good for a few days that ran into longer than I had anticipated.  OK, I put my bait container along with the brined herring in my small freezer that I had plugged into the outside trailer receptacle.  Guess what, it was dead also and I did not even think.    I did not make it back for 10 days and when I got close, that not so good smell was coming from my freezer.  All my frozen bait was mush and stinking.  I did not have time to get new bait.  But when I pulled my small Rubbermaid brined container out, these bait looked good.  They had been in this brine for possibly 13 or 14 days and in the same now thawed freezer.  OK, I had no choice, cut plug one and go for it on one rod.  That bait lasted for about 4 hours before the belly blew out.  Re-bait and we caught a 10# Chinook on the second bait.   I have found if I use 8 oz. of this brine mix, 10 green label herring and enough water to cover the bait that this brine does not freeze if I put it in the freezer.  Needless to say, I AM IMPRESSED.

 

Recently I have came across the another herring cure that appears to be very similar to the Baitmasters Magic Brine, which is sold by Northwest Bait & Scent under the name of Super Herring Brine #910 http://northwestbaitandscent.com/.  The instructions say, 1/3 cup of brine powder to 1 quart water which will cure 1 dozen bait.  The website information recommends soaking for 24 hours if the weather is hot, otherwise overnight is fine.


Dying Bait ;  Here, you could get controversial as some swear by it, while others are mediocre about it.   Some say if you get good bait that you do not need it dyed.


Some fishermen will add the dye in the bait cure and this may be well if you are fishing a lot or have a number of persons on your boat AND know the color you anticipate to use.  Some say just use food coloring and that seems to be OK if mixing it in with the cure.  Others prefer to use a stronger dye like the Pro Cure Bait Bad Azz and just dip the individual bait in the dye prior to rigging it on the hook. 

 

Pro Cure Bait Bad Azz Dyes are a highly concentrated dye that works for about everything, whether you're dying salmon eggs, a few dozen herring or 10 pounds of prawns, this is the way to go.  Pure concentrated bait dyes go along way in dying large quantities of bait, or dipping singles.  In just a few years the brilliant Bad Azz fluorescent colors have become legendary.  Bad Azz Bait Dyes are recommended to be used in conjunction with their Brine 'n Bite Bait Brine or any other bait cure.   Fish are definitely receptive to color on certain days.   The most common colors used are chartreuse, purple, pink, blue and green.   Be aware, this dye will get all over your hands and ANYTHING else it comes in contact with (boat decks included).  It is best to bait your hooks over a towel and use latex gloves.

 

This dye can also be used for prawn and shrimp when river fishing for Chinook and Steelhead.

 

When one well known successful river estuary guide was asked what color to dye herring, his answer was Blue, Blue, and Blue.

 

Dying herring bait is usually only done when fishing the estuaries or rivers.  You will hardly ever see it done in the ocean, Chinook MAYBE, but never when targeting Coho, as they are aggressive biters.

 

Bait in Use ;  Once firmed up, keep the bait covered with the brine and refrigerate until you are ready to use it.  Store your brined bait on ice, in the cooler when fishing and not in the refrigerator.  After your day of fishing, put your leftover bait and cure container back in the refrigerator.  I have kept brined bait for as long as 2 months and it still looks, feels and smells good, and even catches fish.  No need to feed seagulls unused and now expensive herring.   

 

I have a small insulated 22 Liter Rubbermaid bait cooler #2A21, and use a small a Rubbermaid 5.1 cup (1.2 Liter) container that measures 3" high, 4 5/8" wide and 9 1/2" long that has a tight fitting, snap off lid for my bait and brine.  This container will comfortably hold a dozen baits.  I also use a 1/2 gallon milk jug of frozen water that just fits UNDER the bait container, keeping it cool while inside this cooler.  Using these, I can reuse the brine and/or add to it slightly for another day's fishing without diluting it.  This method keeps the bait cool all day, and at night I simply put the bait container in the refrigerator and the milk jug in the freezer for use the next day.  

 

Here is my bait container setup as mentioned above
 

If you fish alone and don't go thru much bait, then break the tray in half and only brine 1/2 a package at a time, you may lose a few scales on a couple baits when breaking them apart but usually not enough to worry about.


Another thing to consider is when plug cutting a herring, most fisherpersons will use a cutting fixture, and these work well, giving consistent cuts making your bait spin the same each time.  However that creates a situation where all the baits of the fishing fleet are spinning the same direction, so when you get proficient enough to cut yours without a fixture, you might consider cutting some of yours the opposite side, therefore providing something different.  One very important thing to remember when cutting bait, is USE A VERY SHARP KNIFE.  And I like to make the cut in one swipe starting at the belly and ending at the backbone (no sawing back and forth).  Using this method, it guarantees a non jagged belly cut if the bait is not as firm as I would like it.

Rigging ;  There are many ways to hook a cut plug herring, but the main thing is the positioning of the front hook.  The hook needs to enter near the backbone on the low side of the cut, go over the backbone and out on the high side.  The leader could be tied using two or three hooks.  Usually if two hooks are used, the trailing hook is passed through the low side of the belly.  Some will then hook it into the flank ahead of the tail, others may go over the back and hook it on the opposite side.  Others simply allow it to hang loose.  Then there is the three hook setup as seen in the photo below.
 
Here is a 3 hook, solid tie leader rigged on a cut plug, with a corkie as an added attractor

Tips ; 

 

(1) Some will cure the bait, then cut plug it, putting it back in the cure until needed which speeds up the re-baiting process. 

 

(2) If you do this, do not throw the head/entrails away, but add it back into the brine for more natural scent. 

 

(3) If you want a faster spin clip off the tail of the herring. 

 

(4) If the bait has not been cured and later in the day is getting soft, cut off the sides of the belly from the backbone on top front to the anis.  This will still allow you to fish a soft cut plug and give a slightly faster spin at the same time, especially good for ocean Coho.

 

(5) Freeze any leftover Springer bait to use later in the summer for Coho in the ocean (fillet strips), as ocean Coho are less demanding and will bite about anything.  Or you can mash it up and add the the Brad's Super Cut Plug baits cavity.

 

 

I will not address scent on baits here, as this is covered on another article  Do Fish Smell ?

 

Dying Shrimp ;  The use of dyes for shrimp as a bait is usually done without brining, it as there is a tough outer shell on these.  But dying will be readily done in colors of usually bright red or a dark purpleish red.

 

 

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Originated 01-07-2015, Last updated 10-09-2016
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