Spring into Shad

The return of spring for some people is heralded by the backyard arrival of favorite songbirds like robins and redwing blackbirds, and for others by wildflowers like bloodroot and Dutchman’s britches. For me, the telltale totem of spring is the shad, an American saltwater fish and noble member of the herring family that spawns in…

Shad-fishing-thumb
Published April 26, 2012 9:21 PM
4 min read

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Shad-fishing-thumbThe return of spring for some people is heralded by the backyard arrival of favorite songbirds like robins and redwing blackbirds, and for others by wildflowers like bloodroot and Dutchman’s britches. For me, the telltale totem of spring is the shad, an American saltwater fish and noble member of the herring family that spawns in fresh water this time of year.

 

Shad-fishing-big








By Paul Hicks

 

The return of spring for some people is heralded by the backyard arrival of favorite songbirds like robins and redwing blackbirds, and for others by wildflowers like bloodroot and Dutchman’s britches. For me, the telltale totem of spring is the shad, an American saltwater fish and noble member of the herring family that spawns in fresh water this time of year.

 

Like salmon, shad return to the rivers where they were born, and the larger the river, the further they will travel to reproduce. As springtime arrives along the Atlantic coast and the water temperature reaches the right level, they head for their natal rivers from Florida to Maine. In our area, the major spawning grounds are in the Delaware, Hudson, and Connecticut rivers.

 

Even though I am not much of a fisherman, I root for shad the way someone from Maine prizes lobster and Bostonians cherish cod. It is part of our regional heritage and the only fish still taken commercially from the Hudson. Despite the pollution of the river with PCBs and other toxins, shad are immune because they don’t eat during the short time they remain in the Hudson.

 

Nonetheless, they are an endangered species. According to one report, 30 million shad headed up the river in the 1940s, but by the early 1980s, the number had dropped to fewer that 4 million. Today, the Hudson may be the spawning ground for only 200,000. The decline has not been due to over-fishing in the river but for a variety of reasons, including netting by trawlers offshore before they reach the river.

 

I could provide you with many more essential facts about shad, but the job has already been eloquently done by John McPhee in “The Founding Fish”. As one reviewer said, “McPhee knows shad the way Stephen Hawking knows physics, the way that Billy Graham knows the Bible, the way that Nolan Ryan knows the fastball.”

 

Besides interesting scientific details, McPhee tells many tales about the shad’s role in American history. Apparently, George Washington used them as fertilizer at Mount Vernon but did not favor them as food, because they are very boney. McPhee does not explain, however, why Washington did not have one of his servants filet them and serve them with the delectable shad roe.

 

Like the eggs of any fish (even premium caviar from the sturgeon), shad roe is an acquired taste for many people. For those who are adventurous enough to try it at home or in a restaurant, however, there is a great reward. Unlike sturgeon or salmon caviar, shad roe has a very delicate taste and is especially good when sautéed in butter and served with bacon, lemon slices and a sprinkling of parsley.

 

It is such a prized delicacy for some fans that they have standing orders with their fishmongers for purchase as soon as they become available. Both the roe and the shad itself are in short supply, and the best place to look for them locally is at June & Ho. An alternative source is the Lobster Bin in Greenwich.

 

If you get hooked after eating shad roe or after reading “The Founding Fish”, the next step is to attend one of a number of shad festivals celebrating the revival of the fish in different rivers. This weekend there is one on the Schuylkill River in Mount Clare, Pennsylvania and another on the Delaware River in Lambertville, New Jersey.

 

Still to come is a Shad Derby on the Connecticut River May 11.

 

Although the New York Riverkeeper bragged that “more than 1,000 friends and supporters” would be attending the 21st Hudson River Shad Festival on May 15, 2011, there will be no 22nd event this year. Perhaps some other group will pick up the baton and keep the celebration of shad and the Hudson River going.

 

I confess that I discovered a letter written by a Georgia ancestor in 1850, praising the dinner of shad and roe he had enjoyed in Savannah. Therefore, I am likely to be incurably biased by a genetic trait known as , which is, coincidentally, the scientific name for American Shad and means “most delicious.”



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