The American shad or Atlantic shad, Alosa sapidissima, is a species of anadromous fish in family Clupeidae of order Clupeiformes. It is not closely related to the other North American shads. Rather, it seems to form a lineage that diverged from a common ancestor of the European taxa before these diversified (Faria et al. 2006).
Shad are shot through with small bones. There is a great controversy over the taste of shad, opinions running from inedible (some fishermen cut shad up to use for bait) to superb; some esteem it above the famous Atlantic salmon and consider it flavourful enough to not require sauces, herbs or spices (although most will sprinkle it with vinegar or lemon juice). It can be boiled, filleted and fried in butter or baked; baking shad at a low temperature for an extended period will dissolve the tiny bones, although the texture of the flesh will suffer.
Aside from the fish itself, the eggs, called "shad roe", are a prized gourmet item (although, again, some people find them inedible). Several thousand small eggs, roughly the size of a BB, are contained in a pair of reddish-orange membranes just inside the female's belly, running from about an inch behind the gills almost to the anal opening. The roe are most often fried and eaten for breakfast with eggs or a starch, although dinner recipes exist.
The shad was enormously important as a food fish and protein source in early coastal settlements due to its great numbers and ease of taking when spawning; in 1789, an estimated 830,000 shad were caught from the Merrimack River alone. (Sadly, by 1888, shad were almost completely gone from the Merrimack, as dams cut the shad off from their spawning grounds.) Traditionally it was caught along with salmon in set nets which were suspended from poles driven into the river bed reasonably close to shore in tidal water. George Washington worked as a shad fisherman in 1781. A good account of the early importance of shad to feeding coastal populations in the 18th century is contained in The Founding Fish by John McPhee. The American shad is the official state fish of Connecticut.
Like other herrings, the American Shad is primarily a plankton feeder, but will eat small shrimp and fish eggs. Occasionally they eat small fish, but these are only a minor item in their general diet.
The sexually mature fish enter the streams in spring or early summer when the river water has warmed to 50° to 55°F. Cooler water appears to interrupt the spawn. Consequently the shad run correspondingly later in the year passing from south to north along the coast, commencing in Georgia in January; in March in the waters tributary to Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds; in April in the Potomac; and in May and June in northern streams generally from Delaware to Canada.
In large rivers they run far upstream especially in the open rivers of the southeast. The apparent longest distance is in the St. Johns River of Florida, an extremely slow (1" drop per mile) river that widens into large lakes; shad have been found 375 miles upriver.
The fish select sandy or pebbly shallows for spawning grounds, and deposit their eggs mostly between sundown and midnight. Females release eggs in batches and produce about 30,000 eggs per batch, though as many as 156,000 have been estimated in very large fish. Total annual egg production is 200,000 - 600,000 eggs per female with larger fish producing more. In rivers north of Cape Fear the spent fish, now very emaciated, begin their return journey to the sea immediately after spawning. In southern rivers, shad die after spawning.
The eggs are transparent, pale pink or amber, and being semi-buoyant and not sticky like those of other river herrings, they roll about on the bottom with the current. The eggs hatch in 12 to 15 days at 52° (12°C), in 6 to 8 days at 63° (17°C), which covers the range characteristic of Maine and Bay of Fundy rivers during the season of incubation.
The larvae are about 9 to 10 mm. long. The young shad remain in the rivers until fall, when they move down to salt water; they are now 1.5 to 4.5 inches long, resembling their parents in appearance.
Such pollution, however, may damage the spawn, and studies have been undertaken to determine whether fingerlings suffer DNA damage. Some of the rivers in which the shad spawns have dams on them, eliminating much of the spawning grounds; in recent years, several small dams have been destroyed for just this reason. Pollutants, even if not harmful per se, may encourage the growth of unfriendly water fauna. And finally, shad have simply been overfished.
Even more important to the decline of the shad is the damming of the rivers and streams in which they spawn, as pregnant doe shad are quite heavy and do not jump even when hooked. As noted above, the number of shad caught in the Merrimack River declined from almost 900,000 in 1789 to 0 in 1888, due to the fishes' inability to reach their spawning ground.
Shad serve a peculiar symbolic role in Virginia state politics. On the year of every gubernatorial election, would-be candidates, lobbyists, campaign workers, and reporters gather in the town of Wakefield, Virginia for Shad Planking.
American Shad were introduced into the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento River system in California in the 1800s. Shad have spread throughout many river systems on the West Coast of North America. There is currently a very large shad population in the Columbia River. In recent years shad counts at Bonneville and The Dalles Dams have ranged from over two to over five million fish per year. Shad return to the Columbia in May and June. Shad migrate upstream as far as above Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River and above Priest Rapids Dam on the Upper Columbia. Unlike many exotic/introduced species, it has not been confirmed that American Shad have serious negative effects on the environment or other native fish species in the Columbia.
Here's a quick overview of some of the best shad fishing rivers in North America:
California: The Sacramento River provides the best-known shad water in the state, but it is ideally suited to spin fishing. The water is large, quite deep and is best accessed via boat. The wading fly angler will find smaller, more accessible water along the Sacramento's' tributaries. The Feather River has numerous good spots between the Oroville Dam and the Sacramento, the Shanghai bend downstream from Marysville being one of many. The Yuba, a tributary of the Feather, branches northeast along Route 20 from which there are numerous access points. The American River from Nimbus Dam to Sacramento has numerous parking areas just north of the American River Parkway. The numerous islands in this section can split the shad run, so depending on the water level, target runs and riffles where the whole run is concentrated. To the north, the Klamath, like the Sacramento, is big shad water. Its tributary, the Trinity River, is more accessible and follows Route 299 closely.
Oregon: Most of Oregon's coastal rivers have shad runs, but there are some standouts. East of Portland, the Bonneville Dam poses a significant obstacle to the Columbia River's shad run. As a result, the most popular areas are just downstream from the dam, though shore fishing can be dicey depending on water levels. Some of the better shore access is found upriver from the dam on the Washington side of the river (see below.) Downstream from the dam, the Willamette River extending south of Portland and the Columbia River provides some shore access. The Umpqua River east of Reedsport along Routes 38 and 138 to Roseburg and beyond is a popular area. The Rogue, Coos, Siuslaw, Smith, Sandy and Coquille Rivers also have shad runs worth investigation.
Washington: The Columbia River delineates the border with Oregon, so some of Washington's best shad fishing is to be had in the Bonneville Dam area. From Highway 14, two miles east of North Bonneville, transmission towers mark the entrance to an access road that will put you onto some good spots. The Chehalis and Skookumchuck Rivers in the vicinity of Centralia has good water. Route 6 west from this area follows the upper Chehalis and will bring you to another good shad river, the Willapa. American Shad are also fished commercially in the Columbia River. There is a small non-Indian commercial gillnet fishery several miles downstream from Bonneville Dam. There is also a tribal commercial fishery. The tribal fishery is composed of a dipnet/hoopnet fishery from platforms primarily in the Bonneville Dam pool and a live trap fishery at The Dalles Dam.
New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey: Look no further than the Delaware River. With a shad run exceeding 300 miles, this river offers many, many places to catch shad, though most of the better wading fly water is above Port Jervis, New York. The Delaware River recently hosted rock star Dean Ween for his fishing show Skunked during a premier episode fishing for shad. From there to Hancock, Route 97 follows the river affording access on and off for over seventy miles. There are numerous pull-offs and rapids on Route 97. To name just a few good tail outs: up and downstream from the Barryville Bridge; downstream from the Lackawaxen Bridge (parking on the Pennsylvania side); Cedar Rapids; Ten Mile River Access; and down from Kellams Bridge just north of Hankins. A good map of this area can be found at http://www.gonefishing-gs.com/RiverMap.htm.
Connecticut: Unlike the Delaware, the shad on the Connecticut River have to pass a number of dams, each one thinning the numbers that push farther upstream. The river is pretty big to fish without a lead line and a boat, so waders pretty much have to look for confluences like that of the Farmington River near Windsor. The Hammonasset River around Clinton reportedly has some good fly water.
Massachusetts and Vermont: Holyoke Dam — perhaps the state's most famous spot — is too crowded to be any fun, but it is where local Roofing and Siding Contractor Robert A. Thibodo (1937-2006) set the current World Record on May 19th 1986 (11 pounds 4 ounces). In the Springfield area, it would be better to try spots below the Willimanset Bridge or the confluence of the Chicopee River. But you'll have a more pastoral experience fishing up and down from the Rock Dam (not a dam at all, just rocks) access at Turners Falls. Some coastal rivers like the Palmer and the North are also reported to have less crowded conditions. Shad go all the way up into Vermont as far as Bellows Falls, though the Vernon dam has significantly decreased the run by this point.
Maryland and Washington, D.C.: Here's where you start running into significant numbers of hickory shad, which though similar to American shad, are smaller cousins with a predilection for small bait fish imitations. Below the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River is a popular spot, and in Washington D.C. try Fletchers Boathouse and below Chain Bridge on the Potomac River. These are not particularly wadeable spots, and can be busy, but they consistently offer good fishing. In addition, the Potomac is sufficiently narrow in places to afford shore fishing opportunities in the aforementioned stretch. Spinfishing has been the historical norm, but flyfishing has been very popular recently. Deer Creek is also a good spot, though only for Hickories.
Virginia: The James River's tributaries offer a variety of opportunities, as do the York River tributaries like the Mattaponi south of Aylett and the Pamunkey. Other hot spots include the Chickahominy at Walkers Dam below Lexana and the Nottoway. But some of the best wading can be had on the Rappahannock around Old Mill Park in Fredericksburg (park on river road so you don’t get locked into the parking lot), and down from the Route 1 bridge where there are a couple parking places. Wading from the north side is recommended.
North Carolina and South Carolina: Try Cape Fear River at the Lock & Dam No.1 and the Tar River upstream of Rocky Mount railway bridge. In low water, the Roanoke between US 158 and the Weldon Boat Ramp offers some access to shad. The Cashie River near the US 17 bridge is very wadeable, though this is primarily hickory shad territory. Also of note is the Pee Dee River below Blewett Fall dam.
Florida: The St. Johns River meanders through swamps and savannas, a completely different shad river from the Delaware’s stony rapids and draws. And as if that weren’t enough, the season is from December through March. Some excellent fly water can be accessed from Route 46 between Sanford and Titusville – all this within easy reach of Orlando. Except in unusual conditions, the shad stays fairly deep, requiring weight on the line or fly. Many fly fishermen will use an unusual 1/64 oz. "micro-jig", that resembles a tiny casting bass jig, although it commonly has short nylon feathering to the rear.
Most shad in the St. Johns, however, are taken either by slow trolling or drift casting, i.e. casting upriver and letting the lure drift with the current. Most fishermen use a Y-shaped "shad rig", consisting of two lures spaced one to two feet apart, with a weight on a swiveled line between them or in front of them. The two lures are either two "shad darts" -- a very small bright jig (as small as 1/64 oz., but usually 1/4 oz. and about one inch long) -- or a shad dart in front and a spoon spinner in back. Sometimes a live grub is threaded onto the dart. The shad stay near the bottom unless the water is unusually high, so the rig is designed to keep the lure a foot off the bed.
The male shad is an excellent game fish, showing multiple jumps and an occasional end-over-end; it has been called a "freshwater tarpon". The pregnant female does not fight much, but is often kept for the roe. In times past, the St. Johns held an annual shad tournament in February, and an estimated 1,000 boats could be seen trolling the river north of Sanford. Today, there is a bag limit of 10.