The movements of shad during the short time they are in the rivers have been fairly well documented by biologists. They know, for example, that the main body of fish, normally more bucks than roes, come in from the ocean when the river temperature hovers between approximately 55� and 65� Fahrenheit. In most rivers the bucks arrive first and the roes follow a few weeks later. When the shad reach the upriver spawning shallows, they do not pair off quietly over nests, as do the more decorous bass and sunfish. Instead, several buck shad gang up on a roefish and ram her amidships to drive out the ripe ova. When they are spawning—usually from the late afternoon until midnight—wallowing shad can be easily seen and heard. Fishermen who are lucky enough to find spawning shad can catch them on almost anything.
An average four-pound roefish may expel several hundred thousand eggs, which are then fertilized by the buck shad in a hit-or-miss fashion. Within a week the fertilized eggs hatch into shad larvae, little wigglers with their egg sacs still attached. In one more week they are fully formed, free-swimming fry, still helpless but growing fast, and by the end of six weeks they are agile and hardy fingerlings.
"Once in the ocean, the shad is still pretty much a mystery fish," says Paul Nichols, chief of shad investigations for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in Beaufort, N.C. "We are quite sure, however, that the main body of spawned-out shad on the Atlantic coast spend the summer and fall in the Gulf of Maine and then, joined by their offspring, move south. The shad apparently feed in deep water—some have been netted in 126 fathoms during their southerly migration. Then, as the water temperatures rise, the adult shad—those from 3 to 5 years of age—break away from the main concentration and move into coastal waters to seek out their spawning rivers."
Tagging returns have proved that shad, like salmon, steelhead and generally, striped bass, return year after year to spawn in the same rivers in which they were born. There are other mysteries. In the Edisto River of South Carolina, in Georgia's Ogeechee and Florida's St. Johns—all burgeoning sport fisheries—shad spawn only once and then die before they reach the ocean again. On the St. Johns, thousands of pelicans line up on sand bars on both sides of narrow channels, waiting to scoop up spent and emaciated fish.
In contrast, the great majority of shad that manage to evade nets and lures north of South Carolina and on the West Coast often spawn as many as five years in succession.
As the shad attracts more anglers every year, the sport-fishing regulations get more and more out-of-date. In Florida the daily limit is 15 fish, and experienced meat fishermen consider it a bad day when each member of the family cannot get fat roe fish. Only a few sell their catch to fish markets, and those that take home 40 pounds of shad roe every day for a month would be hard-pressed to eat or give it all away. States like California and Oregon have no limits, and on the Sacramento and Mokelumne rivers in California "bump netters" go out at night and dip up tubfuls of shad with long-handled wire-mesh nets.
For all its endurance and fighting qualities, the shad is a fragile fish out of water and should be cleaned and scaled immediately. Removing the hair-fine bones from a shad is an almost impossible task and can be done right only by an expert. If a fisherman wants to eat his catch—and it is well worth eating, as these recipes indicate—he might do well to have the fish boned by the man in the local fish store.