Spring is the season of returning and renewal. Neo-tropical migrant songbirds arrive in New England after journey's of thousands of miles, while Monarch butterflies make the long trek north from their winter refuges in California, Mexico and Florida along with human "snowbirds". Amphibians move to their vernal wetlands and rattlesnakes to their summer hunting grounds.
Along our coasts and riverways, other migrations as vast and significant as those on land or in the air are also underway. There are in-stream migrations of cool water fish moving between main stem and tributary as temperatures rise. Many anadromous species, those that spend portions of their life cycles in fresh water and salt, make annual migrations upriver from the sea to their freshwater spawning grounds. Some, like Blue Back and River Herring, may journey just a few miles upstream or hundreds of miles to the place of their birth to spawn, making them keystone species for overall ecosystem health in these aquatic systems. The herring run in Wareham, MA, is a harbinger of Spring for me, and I marvel at the silvery fish, lined up in tight ranks across the current beneath the spillway, as they prepare to make their leaps. Sadly, the Coalition for Buzzards Bay gives herring a marginal rating of only 5 out of a possible 100 points in its viability assessment of this species in the Bay.
Among the most extraordinary migrations is that made by the American Shad, a fish of such former abundance that it has earned an importance to the development of early America and its legendary place in American History as The Founding Fish that -apocryphally, it turns out- was claimed to have saved Washington's Troops after the terrible winter at Valley Forge.
Shad did impact the outcome of one Civil War battle, the confederate rout at Five Forks, when General Thomas Rosser's men netted a run of shad and he, General Fitzhugh Lee, and division commander George Pickett enjoyed a shad bake. Most inopportunely for the Confederacy, this feast kept them away from the line when Sheridan's Union forces attacked soon after.
Shad have a difficult time with the Housatonic, with its many impoundments and lack of fish ladders. Historically, the Great Falls of the Housatonic at Falls Village was the natural barrier to upstream passage for anadromous fish. The Delaware, Hudson and Connecticut rivers, however, have majestic runs, which in good years see fish passages hundreds of miles upstream. Connecticut River migratory fish counts show an anadromous fishery dominated by shad, followed by sea lamprey, and just handfuls of herring and salmon.
The farther a roe shad can travel upriver before she spawns, the greater her reproductive success rate. Female shad can produce 30,000 eggs in their much prized roe, but reproductive success is extremely low. Shad are the primary forage of striped bass, and while among the boniest of fish, their sweet flesh is a regional delicacy.
The Half Moon Press published Christopher Letts; "Reflections of a Shad Fisherman" in 1998 in which he comments on the association between successive runs of shad and the flowering of certain species in Spring:
"As we headed for the beach, I focused on the shadbush blooming on the shore. The old-timers had a litany of flowering times that matched the progress of the fishing season. When forsythia bloomed, shad were in the river and it was time to fish. Successive runs of fish came in cadence with the blooming magnolia, cherries and shadbush. The shadbush marked the high point of the season, the peak of the catch. Then came the dogwood run, and finally, the biggest and best shad of the year signaled the end of the season when the lilacs bloomed. Lilac shad might run to fifteen pounds, more than twice the size of the shad we had in the boat."
The lilac run has passed now, but there are shad bakes up and down the rivers of our region from the Connecticut to the Hudson. The one I attended last year in Catskill included a novel method for preparing planked shad. About six giant bags of charcoal were laid end to end on heavy grade aluminum foil and set alight. Shad fillets were fixed to seasoned oak boards with reversal props to facilitate flipping using strips of bacon and new roofing nails. These were placed near the coals and turned once during an hour of baking. The fish was smoky sweet and I look forward to experiencing it again. Shad roe was a bit more challenging to warm up to, but dredged in flour and lightly fried it sliced fine and was quite good with scrambled eggs.