Chesapeake Outdoors

Vol. 8, No. 20
May 18-24, 2000
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Two True Potomac Rivermen Talk Shad

As I crossed into Virginia, I was greeted with a supersonic boom, one of many accompanying an angry squall that plowed through our region last week. Last year when I went to Lewis Harley’s home near Hallowing Point in Lorton, where he and his family work the local waters for catfish, it was a glorious May evening. But tonight, my trip with Lewis and Jim Cummins, a biologist for the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, to drift net for American shad (also called white shad) for the shad restoration program, was in storm jeopardy.

For six years, Jim and Lewis have been on the frontline of the Potomac effort to jump-start depleted stocks of shad by taking shad eggs and milt, raising the larvae in a hatchery and releasing juveniles with increased chances for survival.

In earlier centuries, river men and native people fed themselves and their families, and made a lot of money, harvesting the Potomac River’s once-prodigious stocks of migratory finfish: American shad, river herring and rockfish.

By the time I arrived, the storm had subsided and Lewis and Jim decided to give it a try. We trucked down to the beach landing, which didn’t look like it has changed much in 50 years. In the 1940s and ’50s, Lewis said, the landing would be jammed with cars and people from all over the area who came to buy fresh roe and shad.

In its halcyon days, shad fishing was the dominant commercial fishery on the Bay, peaking at about 17 million pounds at the turn of the century. Decades of overfishing, river passages blocked by dams and poor spawning habitat: All pushed the population down. Today, except for some indigenous tribes in Virginia, the Bay shad fishery is virtually nonexistent.

We loaded Lewis’ skiff with nets, a live well and scientific gear and headed upriver, a stiff western breeze smacking us in the face. The ebbed tide, pushed by the wind, was too strong to set nets, so we beached the boat on a sandy stretch of shoreline on the Virginia side and waited. During the down time, we swapped storm stories, and I picked Lewis’ brain about prime netting conditions. This restocking operation works on his wealth of local knowledge about where the shoals and drop-offs are — he runs the river without a depth sounder — and when is the best time to net.

“One of the best times to net for shad,” Lewis said slowly, “is on flood water on a full moon, and no wind. That is hard to beat.”

I asked Jim about the odds of shad returning in any significant numbers Baywide. Jim knows shad have a long way to go, but he is encouraged by efforts to remove blockages, providing more fish ways. He also hopes such programs as Schools in Schools continue to gain participants and support in state and federal legislatures. That joint effort of his agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, regional schools and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation raises juvenile shad for release into the wild.

The weather kept us from fishing that night, leaving unfinished a grueling eight-week effort that had left Jim and Lewis tired. Even though they knew it was a no-go, they kept hinting at drifting a set or two, a pair of rivermen to the end, still wanting to give back to the river that has given them so much.

Fish are Biting

Overall, the reported catches of rockfish are down, compared with the hot action of a couple weeks ago. Most captains and fishermen suggest anglers head south to increase their chances of landing a keeper rockfish.

The black drum watch has started in our part of the Bay, and there have been reported catches of the behemoths in lower Chesapeake. They generally make it to Stone Rock and other traditional haunts by Memorial Day weekend.

‘Little Buddy’ Harrison from Harrison’s Chesapeake House on Tilghman (410/886-2121) reports that their charters are catching plenty of fish, but the keeper ratio is down. The legal fish, however, are good size, in the 36- to 39-inch range. He recommends chartreuse umbrella rigs, fished on rods with no weight, high in the water. The CR Buoy (60 feet of water) and Gooses bell buoy (60 to 70 feet of water) are decent spots.

Fred Donovan from Rod ‘n’ Reel (800/233-2080) says rockfish catches have slowed a bit, but some pretty fish are still being taken. He recommends the CR and CB Buoy. A good hardhead bite on squid and bloodworm is happening at Sandy Point, Chesapeake Fishing Pier, the Honga and Choptank rivers and Eastern Bay.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly