I can always tell when the shad are starting to make their spring runs up the rivers of America’s east coast by peering into the cooler at Jess’s Market in Rockland’s south end. If I see a tray of shad roe pairs, I know that spring has arrived and the run is on. So is lunch: I celebrate the return of the shad by eating their eggs.
The shad run begins in the south and moves north as the waters warm, eventually reaching Maine and Canada. For most of the year the shad live in the open ocean but come back to the rivers to have sex, in their fishy way, and thus keep the species going. The shad have had a hard time of that for the past two or three centuries, as humans have not only caught them in vast numbers, in nets and weirs, but have constructed thousands of dams that block the fish’s passage to its spawning grounds. Maine alone has nearly six hundred dams over 20 feet high, and probably close to a thousand in all; only about a hundred of them produce electricity. The 1999 removal of the Edwards Dam on the Kennebec at Augusta was a really big deal for the shad and other anadromous fishes including Atlantic salmon, alewives, smelts, striped bass and sturgeon. If you sit along the banks of the Kennebec on a fine spring day you might see a giant fish launch itself vertically from the water like an Atlas rocket and, failing to take flight, crash back into the river with a great splosh. That would be His Prehistoric-ness, the sturgeon. With some luck you might see an Atlantic salmon practicing a jeté, apparently just for the hell of it.
John McPhee‘s excellent book, The Founding Fish, has pretty much all you’d want to know about shad and perhaps more, especially if your interest in shad is limited to the vernal consumption of its roe. McPhee is one of the finest non-fiction writers alive, but, to hear him tell it, a fanatic but only modestly proficient shad fisherman, sort of the angling equivalent of a utility infielder. Much of the book recounts his successes and failures on the river (usually the Delaware) but along the way he explores the ichthyology, sociology, and history of the fish, and debunks the myth that an early shad run in the spring of 1778 saved General George Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge, “a tale recommended by everything but sources,” McPhee writes.
Every spring I think, I must go shad fishing this year, in the Saco or the Kennebec; every spring I fail to do so. I have fished for shad exactly once, that in the Potomac River on a cold mid-April morning. I arrived at Ray Fletcher’s little boathouse, just upstream from the bustle of Georgetown and the playing fields of the Hoyas of Georgetown U., before dawn. I was not the first angler there. Ray sold me a license and a little yellow spincasting rod to which he had, by prearrangement, attached a tandem lure rig. He rented me a skiff and told me where in the river to drop my anchor, a 20-pound rock. As dawn broke the temperature was 40 degrees and a wind from Hudson’s Bay was whistling down the Potomac. At 6:43 a.m. I landed my first shad. By 9:00 I was borderline hypothermic but had landed maybe 30 fish, including several doubles on the tandem rig. Enough was enough.
As it happened, John McPhee made an appearance three nights later at Politics & Prose, the best little bookstore in Washington. I went early, anticipating a crowd, and got a good seat. I wanted to tell McPhee that there wasn’t much to this shad fishing business, that in my first time out I had caught dozens, but after his reading the line that formed for his autograph and handshake was too much for me to deal with and I left. Since then I have caught shad only in fish markets, and even then, only their roe sacs. I dredge the roe in flour, fry some thick-cut bacon, sauté the roe in the bacon fat and serve it with steamed asparagus. The Latin name for shad is alosa sapidissima, which translates to “really tasty,” but, like the alewife, the shad has what seems like a million tiny bones, so I leave the flesh to you and McPhee. Shad roe is plenty tasty for me.