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THE AMERICAN SHAD
MANY epicures believe that an American shad, freshly taken from a nearby river and “planked,” is the best of all American fishes.
There was a time in early Colonial days when the shad was not esteemed as a food-fish, owing to the fact that a similar fish was found in the waters of Great Britain, France, and Spain where it was considered a poor man’s fish of inferior quality.
This fish, the allis shad, Clupea alosa, is still found in those waters. It spawns in
the Severn and used to do so in the Thames.
It is also found in many rivers that empty into the Mediterranean and the Baltic, as
well as into the Black and Caspian seas.
It was not long before the quality of the American fish was appreciated, for we are told that at the end of the XVIII Century the fishermen on the Connecticut River refused to sell their shad unless a certain number of salmon were purchased as well.
The shad is so familiar to us now that it might be supposed that those who study fish would have discovered all there is to be known about it, but such is not the case.
The habits of the fish when ascending the rivers, their methods of spawning, the incubation of the eggs and the period thereof, the habits and growth of the young, and the life of the mature fish in fresh water are all familiar, but when the fish return to salt water they are, like the salmon, lost to the ken of man.
It used to be supposed that they wintered in the Gulf of Mexico where there is abundant food and that in January they journeyed slowly northward, dropping detachments at the mouths of various rivers. It has been discovered that this migration does not take place.
In the first place it was noticed that shad often appear in Northern waters before they are found in those of the lower latitude. It was further discovered that when man began the artificial propagation of the shad in a certain river, that stream, and no other, was benefited.
The theory now is that when the shad leave the rivers they dwell somewhere in the depths of the ocean opposite and not far distant from the river in which they were hatched, and that they do not begin to ascend the rivers in the spring before the temperature of the river water approaches 60 degrees.
It is not generally known that for several years some hundreds of barrels of fine shad have been netted in the deep waters adjacent to Mount Desert Rock, Maine, in the month of August. These fish are taken to Northwest Harbor and shipped to the Boston market.
This would lead one to believe that the theory that these fish dwell in the deep waters off the coast when they leave the rivers is a correct one.
In the early history of this country nearly every river along the Atlantic coast was invaded by immense schools, but through increasing fishing and owing to the obstructions in some rivers, the supply gradually diminished until some thirty years ago the Federal and State governments began hatching the shad artificially, with such success that the supply of fish has kept pace with the ever-increasing demand.
Shad are found along our Atlantic coast from Florida to Newfoundland and are most abundant from North Carolina to Long Island.
The chief shad-rivers are the Potomac, Susquehanna, and Delaware and, although the fish has received as many vernacular names as there are rivers that it enters, it is always the same fish.
The hickory shad is found in the waters of Chesapeake Bay and seldom weighs more than three pounds.
The Alabama shad, found in the Gulf of Mexico about Pensacola, is a small variety and, like the hickory, is inferior food to the common shad.
The alewife, wall-eyed herring, or gaspereau, is also a near relative of the shad.
During the spawning season the fish are very susceptible to cold. If after migration begins there is a heavy fall of snow the melting of which lowers the river temperature, there is an immediate decrease in the catch of the fishermen. It is probable that at first maturity the shad returns to the river whence it originated but that after that it may join the spawning shoals of other rivers.
The van of the spring run consists chiefly of bucks or male shad, and soon after the roes or females arrive with a liberal admixture of belated bucks.
The spawning grounds of the shad are at the headwaters of the main river. If the water temperature is suitable it takes from 6 to 10 days for hatching. The eggs are small and semi-buoyant. The fish are very prolific. A single roe has been known to furnish 150,000 eggs.
There is an appalling loss of eggs and young fish, as they are devoured by numerous enemies, and it is estimated that of all the young fish hatched not more than a dozen from any pair of mature fish reach the ocean in safety.
To counteract this wastage, artificial propagation was undertaken with success. In the spring of 1900, 241,050,000 young shad were planted in the rivers of the Atlantic coast.
The shad is the most valuable river fish of the eastern coast. The Chinook salmon and the cod are the only fish of this continent that exceed it in value. In 1896 the catch numbered 13,145,395 fish weighing 50,847,967 pounds and worth $1,656,580 to the fishermen.
At various times between 1871 and 1880 shad fry were planted in the Sacramento River in California and in the Columbia River. They have thrived so well that they are now to be found from San Diego to Fort Wrangle, a distance of 2,000 miles, and are most abundant in the markets of San Francisco.
The shad cannot be rightly called a game fish, yet it has been taken with an artificial fly. Published statements of such catches are often made but the fish captured generally prove to be the hickory shad or the alewife, both of which will take artificial flies as well as bait.
There are conditions where the true shad will rise to a fly. Chief among them is where there is an obstruction in the river above which it is impossible for them to pass. On reaching such an obstruction they swim frantically about and seem to take the lure in savage desperation.
In the early summer it is the custom to fish for them below Holyoke dam on the Connecticut River and at McCall’s Ferry dam on the Susquehanna, but the fish are tender-mouthed and not very game.
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