Shad: An Undeniably American Icon

While some anglers might call it a “great day of fishing”, I call it finding the “shaze”, or more accurately, the “shaze” finding me. The experience moves far beyond a day of great fishing; something magical, historical, ecological, and deeply cultural, something even cosmological happens every spring along North America’s East Coast when millions of shad migrate home to spawn another generation of what Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee has called America’s “founding fish”.

The shaze is what I call that euphoric glaze one succumbs to while angling for shad. It happens after landing dozens upon dozens of the powerful silver jewels and watching dozens more emerge from dark depths to ambush your dart, then circle back into the brown, muddy darkness, digging a charming emptiness in your soul: missing something never felt so good. Underwater ghosts, they are, benevolently haunting my memory of fishing times passed, without the pressure of Time. They leave me mesmerized, practically intoxicated, by a natural high few angling experiences can match.

Casting for shad, hours pass in the spring sunshine before I realize it’s time to return; my limbs and muscles massaged; my mind unwound beyond any therapist’s charm. Most noticeably, though, is the glaze, that deathly stare induced by watching so many fish perform acrobatic stunts around my dart: lunging, falling, rising, tearing, jumping, pulling, and fighting like nomadic warriors. Some are landed, some are not, but catching them is not as important; my immersion in their world, becoming for a few hours a part of the school, dying, then resuscitated by the shaze, and wiggling from my spring-shad cocoon, to return, transformed, is.

The shaze happens every spring along the banks of Maryland’s Deer Creek and Susquehanna River, where amidst the ospreys, kingfishers, great blue herons, beavers, rockfish, and herring, armies of anadromous shad make their annual migration to spawn in the river pools of their birth. As April approaches, the cycle beckons again, a natural compass and clock as powerful and reliable as the sun, moon, and stars or the cherry blossoms, daffodils, azaleas, and forsythia that line our streets and yards in late March and April.

Shad are a hypnotic species because of their abundance, strength, consistency, diversity, and history; for every scale that adorns their bodies, a worthwhile yarn waits to be spun. I’m most familiar with hickory shad, but American shad run through Maryland waters too, and more than 30 species exist worldwide. A member of the herring family, the American shad’s Latin name, Alosa sapidissima, means “most delicious” or “tastiest shad”, and they’ve stimulated millions of taste buds for centuries, which is why they’ve been called the “poor man’s salmon”.

Shad can detect ultrasound, a defense mechanism that allows them to fend off dolphin and other predators that use echolocation. Native American tribes such as the Abenaki from New England camped around waterfalls to harvest migratory shad, and Rich Remer, writing for The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, adds that the Lenape settled near “shad wallows, places along the river where tributaries emptying into the river created the turbulence the shad needed for successful fertilization.”.

Shad are mentioned in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals and in Emerson’s eulogy at Henry David Thoreau’s funeral in 1862. In 1865, a shad fisherman reportedly helped Lt. Edward Doherty and his cavalry unit from New York in their relentless pursuit of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Due to their popularity, shad were introduced into Pacific waters in the 1870s. However, shad are, as McPhee explains in his book The Founding Fish, as instrumental to the development of the American enterprise as Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson. Rarely does a book chapter strike such a provocative chord as McPhee’s, which boasts the same title, but in 43 pages that read as swiftly as the currents where shad so often congregate, he persuasively presents evidence that demonstrates shad’s national and patriotic value.

In that chapter, McPhee reports how along portions of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River near Valley Forge shad dramatically influenced American history, and their narrative is populated by some of the nation’s most colorful personalities. Daniel Boone, three years old at the time, and his family found themselves on the losing side of the “shad wars” that erupted in the 1730s. As shad fishermen downstream draped nets across the Schuylkill to capture migrating shad, farmers upstream could not because of those obstructions float their crops into Philadelphia markets, an obvious problem for hardworking farmers, McPhee reports.

After ineffective legislation was passed requiring the nets be removed, violence erupted, leaving one person dead. Understanding the value of the Schuylkill’s quarry, particularly its shad, William Penn negotiated fishing rights along the river with the Lenape Indians. And when Benjamin Franklin first walked the streets of Philadelphia, he dined on rolls, strolled the streets, and like a shad himself, dipped his head into the Schuylkill’s waters for a drink. He owned the Pennsylvania Gazette, and McPhee quotes various excerpts and advertisements from that periodical featuring shad-related news.

McPhee’s prose is full of other peculiar anecdotes about this historic fish. Due to the popularity and profit of commercial shad fishing, Franklin’s newspaper in 1775 published a story about “An Act to Prevent Frauds in the Packing and Preserving (of) Shad”. Apparently, shad not properly salted and pickled or stored in “well seasoned White Oak Timber” were a problem.

An Algonquian tribe, the Micmacs, wove an elaborate myth about shad emanating from the fish’s bony skeleton. According to the Micmacs, the shad was originally a “discontented porcupine” that was thrust into the water and later transformed into a shad. And in 1778, Mohawk warriors attacked Connecticut natives who settled in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley along the Susquehanna River. Since so many men died during the massacre, a custom later emerged among commercial shad fishermen that provided those widows and orphaned children free shad, one haul from each fisherman, a gesture which became known as the “Widow’s Haul”.

Washington was a commercial shad fisherman, and Jefferson enjoyed capturing them in seines and eating them broiled. At Valley Forge, Washington’s army was struggling through the winter with limited supplies, including food. The imminent famine that was approaching would have devastated his men, and knowing the importance of that Valley Forge campaign to the war’s outcome, an emaciated army would have jeopardized the Revolution. However, thanks to shad, which were, according to some sources, migrating up the Schuylkill during the famine’s darkest hours, the soldiers were replenished. McPhee writes,

The scene was set for the spring migration of 1778, run of the savior shad from Delaware Bay through Philadelphia and on up the Schuylkill to Valley Forge, the deliverance of embryonic America, the finest hour of the founding fish.

Approximately 12,000 men, McPhee’s sources indicate, fed on barrel upon barrel of shad. In essence, shad not only saved the men, but they saved the Revolution and ultimately America.

Although McPhee uses various sources to support this legend, his provocative counterargument is more revealing: shad didn’t save the day. McPhee meticulously unearths an eclectic range of esoteric sources that suggest the arrival of shad that winter may have been grossly exaggerated.

Three examples should suffice: 1) In the more than 30,000 words of epistolary comments Washington wrote during the Valley Forge campaign, “Nowhere…does the general mention the Schuylkill River shad run”; 2) the unusually cold spring (particularly mid- to late-March and early April) of 1778 should have delayed that year’s shad run, forcing the enormous schools to remain in the ocean around Cape May, New Jersey, until warmer weather unfolded; and 3) the research of paleoecologists, zooarcheologists, and taphonomists (the latter group consists of scientists who study “all processes occurring after the death of an organism until its discovery”) reveals virtually no fish bone remains at Valley Forge, although several other animals’ remains were discovered.

McPhee’s research leaves readers more perplexed than astonished and submerges the mysterious shad into even murkier shadows. He also raises these important questions: Why has the legend of America’s “founding fish” surfaced? What role did shad play at Valley Forge? And was the shad’s status as the nation’s “founding fish” inevitable even if its role during Valley Forge was overblown?

The answer to that final question is a resounding yes, which is why, along with US Presidents and other founding fathers, popular US Generals since the Revolution have also marveled at shad. McPhee ends his chapter with this salute:

Attracted to the table (during an angling club feast in the “state” of Schuylkill) in 1849 were the ‘strangers’ George Gordon Meade, of the West Point class of ’35, and John Clifford Pemberton, West Point ’37. On July 3, 1863, Meade defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg. On the following day, Pemberton surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg.

Two generals dined over shad, not knowing that their military fortunes would intertwine 14 years later in two of the Civil War’s most crucial battles. During a similar feast in 1920 (where shad were inevitably consumed), McPhee reports, General of the Armies John J. Pershing, a decorated US war hero like no other, said this after serving Fish House Punch and becoming an honorary citizen of Schuylkill: “No honor has ever quite equaled this.” Find me another fish so intimately woven into our nation’s history, and I’ll find you, well, another shad story.

Bonny Wolf of National Public Radio writes,

The Civil War Battle of Five Forks might have turned out differently but for the shad run on April 1, 1865. Confederate Gen. George Pickett had orders to hold Five Forks at all costs. But Picket and Fitzhugh Lee, the cavalry commander, were invited to a shad bake and left their underlings to fight Gen. Phil Sheridan’s Union troops. By the time the generals got back from the shad bake three hours later, the Confederacy had lost a big battle.

Whether intentional or not, whether on the river’s banks or the kitchen’s table, the shad’s enduring ability to hypnotize fishermen large and small has stood history’s test, and nowhere is that history more vibrant than in the Delaware River Valley, the shad’s primary breeding grounds. In his article about the Philadelphia neighborhood known as Fishtown, the center of the city’s shad fishery, Remer states, “The magnitude of the spawning runs of the eighteenth and nineteenth century shad schools in America was legendary,” which is why towns such as Lambertville, New Jersey, sponsor an annual and popular shad festival. In fact, shad may be the most popular fish along the East Coast during April and May: sponsors such as the town of Grifton, North Carolina; New York’s Hudson River Maritime Museum; the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation; and the city of Naticoke, Maryland, to name a few, all host festivals replete with parades, fishing tournaments, cookouts, and arts and crafts demonstrations commemorating the founding fish.

And at these festivals, attendees will most likely watch and taste planked shad. Wolf writes, “American Indians taught the early English settlers to cook shad by nailing it to cedar planks and cooking it slowly over an open fire. In the course of cooking, the trillions of tiny shad bones dissolve.” Shad planking has become so popular in Virginia that it’s a rite of passage in gubernatorial politics. According to Wikipedia, “Shad planking is a political annual event that takes place every April in Wakefield, Virginia where would-be candidates, reporters, campaign workers, and locals gather to eat shad, drink beer, and kick off the state’s electoral season with lighthearted speeches by politicians in attendance.” In addition to planked shad, shad roe and other recipes for our founding fish abound. In addition to Wolf’s culinary suggestions, offers many delicious recipes for cooking shad.

Like many chefs and historians, writers have also gravitated toward the charming allure of the shad. In addition to McPhee’s popular book, Tom Horton, a former environmental reporter for The Baltimore Sun wrote an elegant book titled Bay Country that captures through a literary snapshot the natural beauty of the Chesapeake Bay; in it, he devotes an important chapter to this magnificent fish. Let the River Run Silver Again! weaves an enduring fish tale about how a local school saved dozens of shad schools. And C. Boyd Pfeiffer’s Shad Fishing and H. Lenox H. Dick’s Experience the World of Shad Fishing are two other worthwhile reads.

The shad’s tenacity is a reflection of the American work ethic. Pound for pound, few living creatures fight as hard as the shad, and its ability to return and resurrect its image each year, decade, and century is captivating. However, even the shad’s resilience has limits. Many shad fisheries have been endangered due to overfishing, as this 2006 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration indicates: “Stock abundances of American shad are well below historic levels of the early 20th century as a result of overfishing and habitat destruction.” Subsequently, many states have placed moratoriums on the harvesting of shad.

Thankfully, those policies have worked. Sport fishing for shad became popular much later than commercial fishing for the species, but currently, the fish’s sporting appeal is at an all-time high. Shad are back in many rivers with a fury, and given many state’s current catch-and-release shad fisheries, they are likely to keep returning.

History knocks, so I recall my first shad trip. A few gentlemen from the local Patapsco Valley Trout Unlimited Chapter introduced me to the fishery back in 1999. As we waded into the Susquehanna, I drifted from them, settling onto my own pool, landing fish after fish, and plotting my introductions to this buzz called the shaze. “You seem to be doing just fine over there Chris,” one of them said. “I sure am,” I smiled back. What would America be if shad didn’t exist? What would I be?