For nearly 100 years anglers along the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest have suffered from an "adipose complex," Biologist Dick Duncan's tongue-in-cheek definition for an obsession with Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, both of which sport a small fatty fin between their dorsal and tail fins. Fortunately, the complex is not particularly debilitating, and recently there have been signs of a lessening of the obsession by transference. It is a slow process, but one that has been gaining momentum over the last decade and a half as the Columbia River salmon population has decreased while the early summer run of shad has grown.
The shad is a silvery member of the herring family that came across the continent by rail in 1871, only to be denigrated in its new home as poor white trash for almost a century. The principal drawback to the shad's acceptance was that its maximum weight is about nine pounds, with the average being closer to four, while Columbia River salmon routinely run up to 40 pounds. But the shad is a fighter, ranking with the smallmouth bass as freshwater bantamweight champion. Moreover, it is a producer of roe that is one of the delicacies of Continental and Northeastern cuisine. Strangely, shad roe is still a rarity on Northwest tables, even as the banks of the Columbia draw more and more anglers who have discovered that a fish does not have to be adipose to be a worthy antagonist.
Not all salmon men have been converted, of course. "Shad's too little to catch and too damn bony to eat," growled one. "Roe? Who wants to eat fish eggs?" Well, Nero Wolfe, to name one, as well as a small but growing number of Northwesterners proselytized by Roy Craft, who in 1958 left a job as a press agent for 20th Century-Fox to run the Skamania County Pioneer, a country weekly in Stevenson, Wash.
His crafty campaign, however, does not account entirely for the shad's sudden rise from trash to triumph. That transformation also stemmed from a joint decision by Oregon and Washington fish and game authorities to close the Columbia to sportsmen and commercial gill-netters when it became evident the spring and summer salmon and steelhead runs were dangerously scanty. The loss of two-thirds of their annual salmon festival (there is also a fall run) set fishermen scrambling for a substitute. There were two choices: the diminutive but seasonally plentiful shad (on which there is no limit) or the occasional monstrous white sturgeon, which run up to 1,200 pounds (but with sternly enforced restrictions to fish under six feet long but more than three).
Some anglers, like Paul Sabel, a retired Portland construction man who has fished the Columbia for decades, go for both. One day recently Sabel could be seen planted on the rocky Oregon shore a mile or so below Bonneville Dam, patiently attaching a chunk of aged lamprey to a sturgeon hook and tying a rusty railroad spike to the leader on his 50-pound line. (Sturgeon are bottom feeders.) "I fish for shad when the water is higher," Sabel said. "But this is good sturgeon weather."
It was mighty cold for July, with a west wind whistling up the deep Columbia gorge, yet as far as one could see, fishermen were casting hopeful lures. "A lot of these fellows haven't really learned to fish for shad yet," Sabel said. "You need the lightest possible line, and your lure must be rigged to be retrieved just below the surface. But on an ultralight rod and 4-pound test line a shad is a great test of skill. Only the little jack salmon compares to it pound for pound as a fighter."
Sabel has yet to try eating shad roe, but that is the thing that interests Eric Illjes and Enn Kotkas, two biologists who work the Washougal Reef, some 20 miles east of Portland. They are gathering the eggs for Ichthyological Associates, a Pennsylvania firm that has been hired by Eastern utility companies in an effort to restock the depleted shad population of the Susquehanna River. "We've collected about 13 million eggs so far," says Enn Kotkas. "We work with a commercial fishery at Washougal, using drift gillnets. We strip the female shad and mix the eggs with milt to fertilize them. Then we return them to the water for an hour or so to harden and airfreight them east in Styrofoam containers fortified with pure oxygen. We hope to get about 50 million this year."
There is a note of irony in the eastward shipment of the shad, so treasured on the Atlantic Seaboard and so lightly held in the West. Why were they ever sent West in the first place? Ivan Donaldson, who served as fish biologist for the Corps of Engineers at Bonneville from 1941 until his retirement in 1973, says, "In those early days the Federal Government wanted to enrich the earth by planting alien species anywhere they weren't." The first consignment, in 1871, went to the Sacramento River in California. It wasn't easy. Fry, rather than eggs, were shipped, and the water in the tanks had to be changed at almost every rail stop. Eric Shoubridge, a graduate student at McGill University who is studying biological differences that may (or may not) have developed in the species since transplantation, says only half jokingly that each batch of new water was tested by dropping a fish into a bottle and looking it in the eye. "If the shad looked back, they figured that the water was all right."
The first Sacramento River transplants had migrated north to the Columbia by 1876, and subsequent batches dumped in Idaho's Snake River, and in the Columbia and Willamette in Oregon, have ventured as far north as the Fraser in British Columbia. Between them, the Columbia and Sacramento populations have spread to the Russian, the Trinity, the Rogue, the Coos, the Umpqua and the Siuslaw. Unlike salmon, which homes in on its hatching site after a two-to six-year tour at sea and then dies after spawning, shad may make many spawning trips before they die of old age—or imprudently take a lure.
Shad also have become masters of dam running. In 1944 only an estimated 2,000 mounted the Bonneville fish ladders, but the addition of another giant Columbia River dam and an accompanying still-water impoundment 45 miles upstream at The Dalles created an almost unbelievable surge.