Volume 12, Issue 10 ~ March 4-10, 2004

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Burton on the Bay

Hail to Shad, the Fish that Fed American Independence

The shad was once a
discontented porcupine.
—Mic-mac Indian legend in John McPhee’s The Founding Fish, 2002

The almighty shad is just about to make an appearance in fish markets and on menus. More of interest to me is the delectable roe of these fish. I thought of that the other day when Capt. Bruce Scheible, admiral of the family’s fishing center at Wynne in St. Mary’s County, called to report that already hardheads are being caught in nets at the mouth of the Chesapeake.

So, you might ask, what do shad and hardheads have in common? Why would one remind me of the other?

Well, it’s a bit early for hardhead activity, especially when you consider the old-time winter we’ve endured. But Bruce is a reliable scout, so there’s no doubt but that hardheads are making a showing — leaving me pondering what other fish are set to come up the Chesapeake.

Fish Coming Our Way
There are rockfish of course; some are already making a showing. Soon, the earliest of the earliest will be on the spawning grounds. If the weather the next six weeks is anything like it was in ’03, we can look forward to another gangbusters trophy season, which opens April 17.

Ah, but that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Before that comes a big date up on the Susquehanna Flats. On March 15, a Monday, the special catch-and-release rockfish season opens a run of about seven weeks. That’s how close we are to striped bass action. I can hardly wait.

Between now ’n’ then, we can look forward, I hope, to a yellow perch run. In recent years it hasn’t amounted to much, but the species is making a gradual comeback. That will be followed by a tributary run of white perch, which have not let us down since heaven knows when.

About the time the spring trophy season rolls around, there should be some hardheads biting in Maryland, especially seeing that they’re a tad early at the mouth of the Bay. Usually, they’re taken in nets at least several weeks before they get hungry enough to take a hook baited with a bloodworm or a piece of shrimp or squid.

Or is it that in early season, this ever-so-popular species is hungry enough to take a hook, but fishermen aren’t out bottom fishing? Only the fish know the answer, but one of the first places croakers are reeled in is at the Point Lookout State Park fishing pier, perhaps also the lower Potomac, Tangier Sound, or maybe the Hooper/Honga complex.

Shad’s Sad Saga
But we’re straying from our targeted subject: shad, both the larger whites also known as American shad and the smaller tail-walking hickories. They, too, are entering the Bay now, and both carry those sacs of tasty roe, the hickories being the better of the two in the shad roe category.

Roe, of course, doesn’t have bones. But shad do, and as McPhee reminded, us the Mic-macs of the Algonquian Nation likened them to a discontented porcupine turned inside out. The Indians mythologized the shad originating when the griping porcupine asked the Great Manitou to change it into something else.

The great God seized the dissatisfied porcupine, turned it inside out, then tossed it into the river, and from that day to this, there have been shad. Maybe you don’t go along with Indian folklore, but at least it gives one who has never caught or tasted a shad a clue as to how bony it is. To my personal fish-catching (and eating) knowledge, only the sucker and bonefish can even come close to a shad for bones; our popular pickerel, noted for its bones, ranks nowhere near them in skeletal assessment.

But let us not forget that had it not been for the migrations of shad along the East Coast (they were later transplanted to the West Coast), we might never have tossed the yoke of King George. Shad were plentiful enough to have fed the bellies of the Continental Army, though I’ve never read of our rag-tag troops partaking of shad roe. Maybe shad eggs were set aside for Gen. Washington.

It’s appropriate insofar as our quest for freedom is concerned that the Revolution was fought about two and a quarter centuries ago. If the fight for independence came in the past 30 years or so, and our patriots had to depend on shad, fresh, smoked or salted, for subsistence, we’d be losers. Shad numbers have been so low that a moratorium has been in effect in Maryland for nigh on 20 years.

We caught too many of them, especially via the commercial fleets of the ocean and bays. Now, as with hardheads during the mid-1900s, we have much of a whole generation of Izaak Waltons who have never enjoyed the thrill of shad fishing. I say much of a whole generation because in the past several years the fishing has been allowed, but the keeping not — and many, if not most, anglers want fish for the table.

Early Americans started the decline of the Atlantic Coast’s shad fishery. They built dams, barriers that stopped shad from reaching their historic spawning grounds. Waters below the first dams on a river had more fish (and still do), while those upriver have fewer or none, depending on whether fish ladders have been installed at the dam. Ladders are in at Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna, where catch-and-release shad angling is gaining in popularity.

Better Days
For probably the next five years or maybe more, shad fishing will remain catch-and-release. The other day, I was chatting with Pete Jensen, deputy secretary at DNR, who as a fisheries chief years ago when migrations ebbed to their lowest, played a major role in bringing about the moratorium. Presumably, Pete will play a telling role in any decisions to reopen the Bay fishery to catch-and-keep. For now, he seems to be in no hurry to do so.

Fisheries scientists are a conservative lot, not inclined to open a fishery until a species has recovered. In addition, Pete reminded me that many fishermen don’t keep them anyhow. They abhor the bones in the flesh — though not the succulent flesh — and few know how to de-bone a shad. Tasty as the roe is, countless anglers aren’t interested in the eggs of anything other than a chicken.

So shad are making a comeback as they enjoy the moratorium, and meanwhile more fish ladders are being installed. Even some dams are being torn down (600 thus far) to open passageways for fish from the ocean that move up inland rivers to spawn. Just last month, 22-foot high Embry Dam, 770 feet in length, was blown down on the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. This summer Octoraro Dam on Octoraro Creek near Rising Sun is scheduled for removal.

I’m wondering what those shad (and herring) from the Atlantic think as they move upriver and find they can go unimpeded much farther — no escalators, ladders or elevators needed — than in many decades or even centuries. Thankful as the fish might be, fishermen of upriver waters heretofore deprived of any catching are even more thankful.

All news on the fisheries front is not necessarily bad. Enough said …

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Last updated March 11, 2004 @ 1:15am.