For a stretch of 60-odd water miles between Lake Harney, east of Sanford, and jungled Lake Poinsett, a few seconds by rocket from Cape Kennedy, Florida's teak-colored St. Johns River (SI, June 25, 1962) winds placidly past palms, Australian pines and live oaks hung with lacy Spanish moss. Most of the year the river belongs to the egrets and gallinules and the Brahma and Angus cattle that swim from island to island to browse. But on sunny weekends in February and March an army of shad fishermen appears on this peaceful scene. They are the forerunners of fishing troops who go into action every spring on tidal rivers from Florida to Connecticut in the East and from the Sacramento River Valley north to Washington on the West Coast. The action lasts until late June on the Connecticut River and on the Columbia between Oregon and Washington. It is not surprising that thousands of exuberant fishermen pursue the shad, but it is surprising that this largest member of the American herring family has become a widely popular sport fish only in the last 25 years. In its northernmost ranges—British Columbia, Alaska and Quebec—the shad still has not been discovered.
Alosa (shad) sapidissima (good to eat), the common American, or white, shad, and Pomolobus mediocris, the hickory, or "jack," shad—which is distinguished by its protruding lower jaw—are best known to Americans as the bearers of shad roe. Millions of egg-heavy roe and lean buck shad, fresh from the ocean and pressed tightly together in great schools, swim up the coastal rivers, and more than enough of them elude the nets of commercial fishermen to provide exciting sport for anglers.
Shad are readily available to those who troll from skiffs and outboard cruisers, and cast from piers and bridges and riverbanks. They are caught in open stretches of big rivers like the Delaware, the Connecticut and the Columbia, and quiet, remote streams like Virginia's Chickahominy, and even in such improbable places as downtown Richmond, where shad run up the James River past factories and railroad yards. Spin fishermen still catch shad in the Potomac little more than a stone's throw from the Lincoln Memorial, and not much farther from Mount Vernon, where a commercial fisherman by the name of George Washington once netted shad for the market.
The shad's annual spawning run north of Florida is heralded by the appearance of white blossoms on the service berry, or shadbush, an early-blooming shrub of the eastern spring. Along the riverbanks, the dogwood and the swamp laurel also are coming out, and the first red berries of the holly tree plop softly into the water. Ducks and geese migrating north seem to favor the shad rivers, and the air is thick with the smell of freshly plowed fields and cut grass. Few other sport fish in North America can be caught in such pleasant surroundings. Consider, for example, the Mattaponi River, a tributary of the York River in Virginia. North from the sleepy hamlet of Aylett, the Mattaponi flows for miles through stands of pin oak, willow and loblolly pines, and the river is fed by spring freshets that trickle down red-clay banks. Hickory shad make up most of the sport catch on the Mattaponi, as they do in most Chesapeake Bay area shad rivers. They are taken on artificial lures from well-aerated eddies and riffles that swirl under the banks and around downed trees lying half in and half out of the water. Bird and animal life is abundant on the Mattaponi: colorful wood ducks flit back and forth, otters compete with anglers for shad, and muskrat and mink dens line the banks.
March 16, 1964
During the peak of the spawning run, shad are relatively easy to find. In clear water they can be seen moving smoothly against the current, breaking formation only to navigate around rocks and deadfalls and then reassembling again. Most of the shad caught on rod and reel are taken each year from the same stretches of water. To find schooling shad, a man need only ask at the nearest tackle shop or tavern. If that does not work, he can walk along the river until he finds a cluster of fishermen casting into or wading through moving water. If the shad are there, they will be hitting. If they are not, a man can always go back to the tavern.
Once located, shad can be caught on tiny metal spoons, spinners, bucktail jigs, flies and even plain hooks garnished with red beads. Shad, like salmon, rarely stop to feed during their spawning run upriver. Whether this is because of an urgency to reach the spawning grounds or because their instinct tells them that what they find in a river that passes through Hartford, Conn. or Trenton, N.J. may not be very palatable is uncertain. The important point for fishermen to remember is that shad will not take live bait in the rivers. Biologists think that shad strike at lures out of curiosity or anger, or perhaps in defense. Lures can be trolled slowly through eddies and rips, or cast upstream and across the current. Most strikes seem to come as the lure drifts downstream, and less frequently on the retrieve. Below Enfield Rapids on the Connecticut River, fishermen anchor and let their spoons and jigs trail out over the stern. The current keeps the lures off the bottom, and as they flash and wobble they are irresistible to shad.
Unlike most other sport fish, the shad seems to strike best during the daylight hours. Fishermen love him for it. "Shad keep bankers' hours," drawls S. B. (Jim) Crowe, who runs a popular fishing camp and boat livery on the St. Johns River. "When shad are really in—the peak of the season here is mid-February to mid-March—you can catch them all day long. They even hit well at high noon, when the sun beats down overhead and everything else slips into a state of lethargy. What else could a man ask for in a fish?"
Lesser shad populate rivers and some lakes the world around, but none compare with the American and hickory shad in size, succulence or fertility. Shad have been ascending rivers along the Atlantic coast for centuries and. before hydroelectric dams, pollution and unregulated commercial netting took their toll, shad were so abundant that commercial fishermen in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland sold them for 3¢ apiece.
The shad didn't go west until 1871, when Seth Green, one of America's earliest fish culturists, packed some 15,000 Hudson River shad into 12-gallon milk cans, transported them across the country by rail and seven days later dumped the 10,000 that were still alive into California's Sacramento River. When those fish, and others transplanted by the U.S. Fish Commission in the next nine years, matured, some of them established new spawning runs in rivers as far north as Puget Sound. Six years after his trip west, Green wrote: "The shad is one of nature's best gifts to man...[and it] fairly cries to man for his assistance and protection." Not long after Green died in 1888, the shad was definitely on the wane, and it is only recently beginning to come back, largely because of the tremendous growth of sport fishing on both coasts. Even in the Hudson River, where there is no sport fishing, shad netters are more carefully controlled than ever before. The commercial catch of shad has dwindled from 50 million pounds at the turn of the century to 10 million today.
If the commercial catch has declined, the sport catch has more than tripled in the past 10 years, and the outlook for the future is promising. Pollution is being stemmed on some shad rivers, notably the Delaware, which once had the greatest spawning run of shad on the Atlantic coast. Last year Delaware anglers enjoyed the best shad catch ever. Fish-ways are also being built to move shad past dams to their spawning grounds.
The movements of shad during the short time they are in the rivers have been fairly well documented by biologists. They know, for example, that the main body of fish, normally more bucks than roes, come in from the ocean when the river temperature hovers between approximately 55° and 65° Fahrenheit. In most rivers the bucks arrive first and the roes follow a few weeks later. When the shad reach the upriver spawning shallows, they do not pair off quietly over nests, as do the more decorous bass and sunfish. Instead, several buck shad gang up on a roefish and ram her amidships to drive out the ripe ova. When they are spawning—usually from the late afternoon until midnight—wallowing shad can be easily seen and heard. Fishermen who are lucky enough to find spawning shad can catch them on almost anything.
An average four-pound roefish may expel several hundred thousand eggs, which are then fertilized by the buck shad in a hit-or-miss fashion. Within a week the fertilized eggs hatch into shad larvae, little wigglers with their egg sacs still attached. In one more week they are fully formed, free-swimming fry, still helpless but growing fast, and by the end of six weeks they are agile and hardy fingerlings.
"Once in the ocean, the shad is still pretty much a mystery fish," says Paul Nichols, chief of shad investigations for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in Beaufort, N.C. "We are quite sure, however, that the main body of spawned-out shad on the Atlantic coast spend the summer and fall in the Gulf of Maine and then, joined by their offspring, move south. The shad apparently feed in deep water—some have been netted in 126 fathoms during their southerly migration. Then, as the water temperatures rise, the adult shad—those from 3 to 5 years of age—break away from the main concentration and move into coastal waters to seek out their spawning rivers."
Tagging returns have proved that shad, like salmon, steelhead and generally, striped bass, return year after year to spawn in the same rivers in which they were born. There are other mysteries. In the Edisto River of South Carolina, in Georgia's Ogeechee and Florida's St. Johns—all burgeoning sport fisheries—shad spawn only once and then die before they reach the ocean again. On the St. Johns, thousands of pelicans line up on sand bars on both sides of narrow channels, waiting to scoop up spent and emaciated fish.
In contrast, the great majority of shad that manage to evade nets and lures north of South Carolina and on the West Coast often spawn as many as five years in succession.
As the shad attracts more anglers every year, the sport-fishing regulations get more and more out-of-date. In Florida the daily limit is 15 fish, and experienced meat fishermen consider it a bad day when each member of the family cannot get fat roe fish. Only a few sell their catch to fish markets, and those that take home 40 pounds of shad roe every day for a month would be hard-pressed to eat or give it all away. States like California and Oregon have no limits, and on the Sacramento and Mokelumne rivers in California "bump netters" go out at night and dip up tubfuls of shad with long-handled wire-mesh nets.
For all its endurance and fighting qualities, the shad is a fragile fish out of water and should be cleaned and scaled immediately. Removing the hair-fine bones from a shad is an almost impossible task and can be done right only by an expert. If a fisherman wants to eat his catch—and it is well worth eating, as these recipes indicate—he might do well to have the fish boned by the man in the local fish store.
4 pounds boned shad
1 cup olive oil
‚Öì cup lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
½ teaspoon thyme
3 sprigs parsley
1 bay leaf
½ cup butter
1 tablespoon anchovy paste
juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon chopped dill
Place shad in shallow dish. Combine ingredients for marinade and pour over fish. Refrigerate overnight. Bring shad to room temperature before grilling. Broil shad, flesh side up, in a preheated broiler about 3 inches from heat for 6 to 8 minutes, or until it flakes when tested with a fork. Serve with anchovy sauce. To make the sauce, melt the butter but do not brown. Combine with anchovy paste, lemon juice and dill. Serves 6.
POACHED SHAD ROE
2 pair shad roe
½ cup (1 stick) butter
freshly ground pepper
juice of ½ lemon
Heat butter in skillet until butter is melted and warm but not hot, place roe in pan. Cover with tight-fitting lid and cook over low heat 12 to 15 minutes, turning once. Transfer roe to warm serving dish. Season with salt and pepper. Stir lemon juice into butter and pour over roe. Sprinkle with parsley. Serve with chiffonade of sorrel. Serves 2.
CHIFFONADE OF SORREL
1½ pounds sorrel
2 tablespoons butter
freshly ground pepper
Wash sorrel thoroughly, drain and shred. Heat butter in a large saucepan, add sorrel and simmer until all liquid has cooked away and sorrel is limp—about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Serves 2.