Woods & Water
American shad, almost a fish of the past
In Colonial America and for many years following, American shad were tablefare for the best of us. Now, however, people look down on them and rarely eat them. When we do have them for dinner, it is either at a restaurant or in Delaware, where it is still legal to catch and keep them. Maryland, though, forbids us to keep shad. It’s a crying shame, too, for shad have white, flaky flesh that is firm and mild to the taste.
Shad seem to be surrounded in mystery, from the moment they enter our waters until they leave. Why do they strike a shad dart? They don’t eat once they set out to spawn, so why hit a dart, even though it is their namesake?
A second bit of mystery is in their very appearance, or lack of it. Normally, they enter our waters in late March to early April and stay until mid-May. George Washington was very happy to see them in the winter of Valley Forge, since his men were starving. That year shad came to the Delaware River in winter, saving the Continental Army from more hunger than they could withstand. Ironically, British troops had set fish traps to catch them, but our army saw fit to dismantle them and build their own traps.
Shad were a mainstay of our diets even through the Depression; businesses were dependent upon them. A small army of men were established on the shores of the Susquehanna, hauling in tons of shad each day. Families salted them down and had them for dinner throughout the summer.
Dams have stopped the spawning runs. Along with overfishing and pollution the numbers of shad have dropped tremendously.
In 1972 a fish lift was built by the Conowingo Dam; fish were lifted, counted, and transported to Pa. where they supposedly spawned and returned to the Chesapeake Bay. Nice theory, but it doesn’t hold water.
In 2001 the count of shad amounted to 193,000. That was nowhere near the original number, but it was sustainable. This year’s run is about over. It is 11,163 as of this Tuesday. The lowest in recorded history was last year: 8,341.
At one of our MSSA meetings, a representative from Exelon did an excellent presentation on what and how shad were transported. They are caught in the two fish lifts, put onboard trucks, and transported to Pa.
Do they spawn? No. Do most of them make it back to the Chesapeake Bay. Absolutely not. According to the representative, 93 percent die; only about 3 percent make it back.
In other words, it’s a guaranteed failure operation. However, it is government funded, so it will continue.
Are there other options? Of course. First, fishermen could be allowed to keep one or two. Second, they could be transported to Oxford, Md., where shad research is being done. Third, they could be transported to the Delaware River, where it is still legal to keep a few fish each day. However, this will not be the case. Taxpayers will continue to pay for a failing program.
At least we have rain
Yep, we have rain. Lots of other states don’t, so I guess we should look on the bright side of things. Plenty of this rain has been “tomato rain,” perfect to grow tomatoes and flowers. So when we get sunshine expect to see tomatoes on steroids. Until that time, hope for warmer weather.
Phil Johnson, owner of Walnut Springs Farm, says he has plenty of big strawberries, but they are all green. Not enough warmth to turn them yet. Things will change, I’m pretty sure.