Chesapeake Outdoors
To the Rescue Shad Get a Little Help from Some Friends
by C.D. Dollar

In the shadow of historic Mount Vernon, that grand river estate where George Washington organized large seine net operations for the spring spawning run, watermen of diverse social and political standing have harvested large numbers of finfish, among them American shad, river herring and rockfish. The Potomac River's prodigious natural capital has made some people rich and entertained many more. Some of our nation's most gifted nature writers have been enthralled by the stunning beauty and raw power of the Potomac watershed. With that daunting tradition in mind, I spent a balmy evening volunteering for a shad survey on Walt Whitman's "broad Potomac's shore" to experience "the full flush of Spring returning."

For five years, Jim Cummins and Lewis Harley have set drift nets for American shad, also called white shad, as part of a hatchery program that raises shad to help jump-start depleted stocks. The concept is relatively straightforward: catch shad, use their eggs and milt to produce larvae, grow them into fry and release them back into the river. The process and science needed to pull it off is anything but simple.

Jim, a biologist for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, possesses the scientific knowledge to extract the milt and eggs from the fish and combine them to produce fertilized eggs. A man with a sense of humor and history, Jim sees some of the finest spots the Potomac has to offer, from small rivulets that meander from the Backbone Mountains to the tidal waters where anadromous fish complete their natural calling.

Lewis, pure salt of the earth, has the practical skills and equipment to set the drift nets in the right place at the right tide. His is a fading skill indeed. His family has worked the land and waters near Hallowing Point in Lorton, Va., for generations, and it shows in his intuitive knowledge of the shoals and drop-offs.

Together, Lewis and Jim make an efficient and interesting team.

Lewis, exceedingly likable and Jim's senior by perhaps 20-odd years, has the rough hands of a man who has never shirked hard work. He mainly fishes for catfish. He and his sons set fyke nets and catfish traps to snare the bottom dwellers and then truck them to a fish farm in Atlanta, driving their own vehicle, of course, to cut out the middleman and to ensure that their fish arrive as fresh as possible.

I arrived early and helped Lewis prepare the nets for that evening's fishing. He talked of the shad fishing in the 1940s and '50s, when the landing that he still uses today would be jammed with cars and people from all over the area who came to buy fresh roe and shad. From colonial times to the 1930s, shad fishing was the dominant commercial fishery on the Bay, peaking at about 17 million pounds at the turn of the century.


Fishery and Fish

American shad were the number one and river herring the second most valuable commercially landed finfish in 1920. By the 1930s, however, the fishery was in a tailspin, mainly because demand was high and modern techniques and gear proved too efficient to sustain a healthy shad population. An excerpt from a 1939 report from the now defunct Maryland Conservation Department paints a bleak picture: "the Bay is literally strewn with fishing gears, most of which are set to catch fish all day and all night, throughout the season, thus not giving shad access to the breeding ground."

Dams blocked passage and pollution destroyed spawning to further reduce shad populations. By 1980, the shad fishery collapsed. All forms of shad fishing were prohibited in Maryland. Fourteen years later, Virginia banned shad fishing, allowing only subsistence fishing for Native Americans. Shad are fished commercially in the Delaware Bay and Delaware River, and in an ocean fishery that targets ocean-run shad prior to spawn. Some fisheries biologists believe the ocean-intercept fishery hampers restoration efforts in Bay waters.

Wild shad spend two to five years in the Atlantic, then return to spawn in freshwater, sometimes in large, open tidal rivers like the Potomac. When the water reaches about 60 degrees, the females each release 100,000 to 300,000 eggs into the water column for the males to fertilize. The eggs drift with the current for about five days, then hatch as larvae.

Exhausted from their journey and weak from a lack of food (they don't eat once they reach fresh water), most adult female shad die after spawning because they lack the fat reserves to return to the ocean. Those that make it spend the summer months moving up the Atlantic coast, as far north as Canada's Bay of Fundy. Winter's approach sends shad south to the mid-Atlantic.

After about six months of growing fat on plankton, shad fry begin to resemble adult shad. The juveniles spend the summer months in the tidal-fresh and brackish water and by fall swim to the ocean where they meet up with schools from rivers like the Delaware and Hudson.


Hauling Them In

Once aboard Lewis' 19-foot skiff, we headed upriver 10 minutes, and then, in the thin waters away from the sweeping power of the river's main stem, set the first of three 100-plus-foot-long drift nets. When expanded, the mesh measures about 514 inches square, allowing all but the heftiest of fish to escape. Cork floats on the top leader line and ringed weights on the bottom stretch out the net. Our purpose was to net as many ripe females - those laden with roe - and obliging males - called bucks - as we could before the ebbing tide reached a velocity that made fishing the nets too difficult.

We made three hauls on each of three nets, and with each haul, I looked for the larger silvery roe shad, plucking them from the tangled mess of netting. Large rockfish, nearly all males and several better than 20 pounds, also snared in the drift net, but those not needed for market or scientific study were quickly released without much drama. Scores of gizzard, or mud shad, were also caught. Mud shad, not an anadromous fish, are common in Bay waters.

The shad caught that night contributed to the milky mix that Jim prepared ashore, using a technique he called "kneading" to expel the eggs and milt from the fish's body into a large mixing bowl. Under the dim lantern light, Jim added water, then set the mixture in a float box for about an hour. What began as reddish eggs enveloped with solid white sperm emerged as brilliant champagne-colored gemstones that glistened in the soft light. These precious 'stones' were destined for the vault that is the Harrison Lake (Va.) hatchery run by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

If this process seems arduous, compare it to the epic journey these fish make. Fueled by natural impulse, that primordial instinct imprinted in them throughout the eons, shad travel hundreds of miles to spawn in the streams and rivers of their birth.

Once upon a time, the shad's spawning run was a rite of spring, a respite from a cold hard winter, an opportunity to harvest food and earn money. River towns held festivals annually to herald the shad's return as the shadbush flowered along the banks. Planked shad, cooked on planks of white oak, is a delicacy (appropriate, since the second part of the white shad's scientific name, sapidissma, refers to "tasty"). Nowadays, those skilled in the art of de-boning a shad are few.

On this night, we three tried to do our part to keep shad a part of the Chesapeake's cultural, ecological and economic landscape heritage. I like to think we helped a little.

-Bill Burton is on vacation.

Rockfish are Biting

It seems to be emerging as a spring ritual. For the second year straight, I joined Steve Linhard of Annapolis and his Ducks Unlimited friends who won an auctioned fishing trip.

The difference this year was much better company as well as better results. In the parlance of waterfowlers, we bagged a couple. Nice size too, one 17-pound rockfish and a second that topped 22 pounds, both of which were post-spawn.

In the early morning, aboard Linhard's new Eastern 27-foot Wonder Too, we left Back Creek engulfed in a blanket of fog and made a steady course for the Kent Island side of the shipping channel. The soup remained most of the morning, and it always seems a little eerie to be on the water close to shore and not see any landmarks.

We fished an assortment of lures, but the winning tickets were a Crippled Alewife spoon (11/0) fished way back on a flat line and a green Parachute fished about 15 feet down. Both hit within five minutes of each other, and for the remaining hours, we had not a single strike.

In other parts of the Bay, fly guide Kevin Josenhans reports via e-mail that the Tangier Sound area is producing "good striper fishing now, with fish averaging 17 to 22 inches. We have several 23 to 24 inches on most days." Josenhans also is happy to report that a few speckled trout and bluefish are also being caught, and that fishing is generally getting better as each day passes.

Deeper water (40 to 110 feet) seems to still be the depth to catch most of the bigger fish, and I have heard of some captains speeding up, posting speeds of better than four knots. Umbrellas, Parachutes and big Bucktails with nine-inch shads in white and chartreuse work well, though some believe chartreuse is the better one, particularly on cloudy days.

There is good fishing from Love Point to Point Lookout; fishermen trolling across the channel east to west in the middle Bay around Buoy 72, and from Hoopers Island Light to H.S. Buoy are also doing well. The mouth of the Patuxent River is also scoring, at Cedar Rip and Cove Point. The Upper Bay remains decent. The mouth of the Magothy and channel edges off Hacketts Point are also pretty good bets.

| Issue 19 |

Volume VII Number 19
May 13-19, 1999
New Bay Times

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