For a stretch of 60-odd water miles between Lake Harney, east of Sanford, and jungled Lake Poinsett, a few seconds by rocket from Cape Kennedy, Florida's teak-colored St. Johns River (SI, June 25, 1962) winds placidly past palms, Australian pines and live oaks hung with lacy Spanish moss. Most of the year the river belongs to the egrets and gallinules and the Brahma and Angus cattle that swim from island to island to browse. But on sunny weekends in February and March an army of shad fishermen appears on this peaceful scene. They are the forerunners of fishing troops who go into action every spring on tidal rivers from Florida to Connecticut in the East and from the Sacramento River Valley north to Washington on the West Coast. The action lasts until late June on the Connecticut River and on the Columbia between Oregon and Washington. It is not surprising that thousands of exuberant fishermen pursue the shad, but it is surprising that this largest member of the American herring family has become a widely popular sport fish only in the last 25 years. In its northernmost ranges—British Columbia, Alaska and Quebec—the shad still has not been discovered.
Alosa (shad) sapidissima (good to eat), the common American, or white, shad, and Pomolobus mediocris, the hickory, or "jack," shad—which is distinguished by its protruding lower jaw—are best known to Americans as the bearers of shad roe. Millions of egg-heavy roe and lean buck shad, fresh from the ocean and pressed tightly together in great schools, swim up the coastal rivers, and more than enough of them elude the nets of commercial fishermen to provide exciting sport for anglers.
Shad are readily available to those who troll from skiffs and outboard cruisers, and cast from piers and bridges and riverbanks. They are caught in open stretches of big rivers like the Delaware, the Connecticut and the Columbia, and quiet, remote streams like Virginia's Chickahominy, and even in such improbable places as downtown Richmond, where shad run up the James River past factories and railroad yards. Spin fishermen still catch shad in the Potomac little more than a stone's throw from the Lincoln Memorial, and not much farther from Mount Vernon, where a commercial fisherman by the name of George Washington once netted shad for the market.
The shad's annual spawning run north of Florida is heralded by the appearance of white blossoms on the service berry, or shadbush, an early-blooming shrub of the eastern spring. Along the riverbanks, the dogwood and the swamp laurel also are coming out, and the first red berries of the holly tree plop softly into the water. Ducks and geese migrating north seem to favor the shad rivers, and the air is thick with the smell of freshly plowed fields and cut grass. Few other sport fish in North America can be caught in such pleasant surroundings. Consider, for example, the Mattaponi River, a tributary of the York River in Virginia. North from the sleepy hamlet of Aylett, the Mattaponi flows for miles through stands of pin oak, willow and loblolly pines, and the river is fed by spring freshets that trickle down red-clay banks. Hickory shad make up most of the sport catch on the Mattaponi, as they do in most Chesapeake Bay area shad rivers. They are taken on artificial lures from well-aerated eddies and riffles that swirl under the banks and around downed trees lying half in and half out of the water. Bird and animal life is abundant on the Mattaponi: colorful wood ducks flit back and forth, otters compete with anglers for shad, and muskrat and mink dens line the banks.
During the peak of the spawning run, shad are relatively easy to find. In clear water they can be seen moving smoothly against the current, breaking formation only to navigate around rocks and deadfalls and then reassembling again. Most of the shad caught on rod and reel are taken each year from the same stretches of water. To find schooling shad, a man need only ask at the nearest tackle shop or tavern. If that does not work, he can walk along the river until he finds a cluster of fishermen casting into or wading through moving water. If the shad are there, they will be hitting. If they are not, a man can always go back to the tavern.
Once located, shad can be caught on tiny metal spoons, spinners, bucktail jigs, flies and even plain hooks garnished with red beads. Shad, like salmon, rarely stop to feed during their spawning run upriver. Whether this is because of an urgency to reach the spawning grounds or because their instinct tells them that what they find in a river that passes through Hartford, Conn. or Trenton, N.J. may not be very palatable is uncertain. The important point for fishermen to remember is that shad will not take live bait in the rivers. Biologists think that shad strike at lures out of curiosity or anger, or perhaps in defense. Lures can be trolled slowly through eddies and rips, or cast upstream and across the current. Most strikes seem to come as the lure drifts downstream, and less frequently on the retrieve. Below Enfield Rapids on the Connecticut River, fishermen anchor and let their spoons and jigs trail out over the stern. The current keeps the lures off the bottom, and as they flash and wobble they are irresistible to shad.
Unlike most other sport fish, the shad seems to strike best during the daylight hours. Fishermen love him for it. "Shad keep bankers' hours," drawls S. B. (Jim) Crowe, who runs a popular fishing camp and boat livery on the St. Johns River. "When shad are really in—the peak of the season here is mid-February to mid-March—you can catch them all day long. They even hit well at high noon, when the sun beats down overhead and everything else slips into a state of lethargy. What else could a man ask for in a fish?"
Lesser shad populate rivers and some lakes the world around, but none compare with the American and hickory shad in size, succulence or fertility. Shad have been ascending rivers along the Atlantic coast for centuries and. before hydroelectric dams, pollution and unregulated commercial netting took their toll, shad were so abundant that commercial fishermen in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland sold them for 3� apiece.
The shad didn't go west until 1871, when Seth Green, one of America's earliest fish culturists, packed some 15,000 Hudson River shad into 12-gallon milk cans, transported them across the country by rail and seven days later dumped the 10,000 that were still alive into California's Sacramento River. When those fish, and others transplanted by the U.S. Fish Commission in the next nine years, matured, some of them established new spawning runs in rivers as far north as Puget Sound. Six years after his trip west, Green wrote: "The shad is one of nature's best gifts to man...[and it] fairly cries to man for his assistance and protection." Not long after Green died in 1888, the shad was definitely on the wane, and it is only recently beginning to come back, largely because of the tremendous growth of sport fishing on both coasts. Even in the Hudson River, where there is no sport fishing, shad netters are more carefully controlled than ever before. The commercial catch of shad has dwindled from 50 million pounds at the turn of the century to 10 million today.
If the commercial catch has declined, the sport catch has more than tripled in the past 10 years, and the outlook for the future is promising. Pollution is being stemmed on some shad rivers, notably the Delaware, which once had the greatest spawning run of shad on the Atlantic coast. Last year Delaware anglers enjoyed the best shad catch ever. Fish-ways are also being built to move shad past dams to their spawning grounds.