Delicate April blossoms recall the glorious shad

April 15, 1995|By TOM HORTON

The shadbush still blooms to mark the shad's arrival; it doesn't know the fish have stopped returning.

-- the late poet Gilbert Byron

Behind forsythia and ahead of dogwood, the shadbush, or serviceberry, froths now into delicate, white blossom throughout Chesapeake woodlands.

It flowers unmindful that its companion among spring's great enthusiasms, the return of spawning shad to bay rivers, flickers most places between scarcity and extinction.

But no one who caught Alosa sapidissima, the American shad, can be unmindful that shadbush without shad runs is mere window dressing on what April was once -- and might be again.

My first shad was in April 1959, the product of a casual cast into Caroline County's Marshyhope Creek, on the way to catch pickerel at the town lake.

Nothing warned that I was about to connect with something high voltage: great leaping, silver fish, come to my hometown charged with the energy of the sea and spring's procreative amperage.

Several such encounters, by afternoon's end, had opened an everlasting emotional circuit among angler, shad, April and the oceans.

Of course, these grander implications didn't crystallize until years later.

My immediate reaction was to work the handlebars of my bike through the gills of the four biggest shad so they dangled, two on a side, as I rode home along Main Street, proudly, slowly, trailing blood, scales and friends heading for their fishing poles.

So it is that I, like Gilbert Byron did, feel a loneliness at the blooming of the shadbush nowadays.

Even more, I worry about those who cannot even feel the loss -- like my daughter, as we walked last week through the woods to dip the little herring that do still run up my old shad river.

She is 13, and 16 springs have passed since Maryland banned all fishing for shad in its bay and rivers. A generation has now known shadbush sans shad.

What happened to the fish that was for centuries the very symbol of the bay's bounty is fairly clear in the larger scope of things.

More than a century of rapacious fishermen, spineless regulators and habitat loss -- dams across spawning rivers and destruction of wetlands -- did in the shad.

But how did a fish so plentiful, and so valued, get away from us so suddenly? And why haven't they returned after so many years of protection?

For nearly 15 years after my first shad, catches in both Maryland and Virginia remained in the millions of pounds, not radically lower than anything since the early 1930s, when many dams went in, cutting shad numbers.

But then, in the 1970s, it was as if the fish fell off a ledge. By 1979, the Maryland commercial catch totaled 20,000 pounds. Virginia's landings crashed a few years later.

In my home river, the Nanticoke, which includes Marshyhope Creek, water quality is today as good as most any bay river, and striped bass and white perch spawn here in abundance.

Yet, fairly intensive netting each spring for other species turns up only a hundred or so shad (which are released) -- this from a river that in 1896 yielded 250,000 shad.

On the Patuxent, Choptank, Potomac, Wicomico, Pocomoke, Chester and other bay rivers, the story's the same. Only on the Susquehanna, after years of intensive stocking from hatcheries, is there any sign of a comeback.

Recently I gained some possible insight into the mystery of the shad from a fine paper on the storied decline of the passenger pigeon, written by David Steadman, at the New York Museum of Science in Albany.

From the retreat of the continental ice sheets 12,000 years ago, nearly until the 20th century, the pigeon was North America's most abundant bird. Flights of the 10-ounce pigeons obscured the sun. Where it roosted and nested, whole forests groaned and broke beneath the weight.

Unprecedented logging and market hunting by the 1870s had made the pigeon relatively rare. But only relatively. As late as 1906, no less an observer then John Burroughs, the most famous naturalist of his day, recorded a flock passing over the Hudson River that was more than a mile long.

Yet by 1914, the last passenger pigeon in existence, a female named Martha, died at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Like the shad, at some point the pigeon just seemed to have fallen over an unseen edge.

"How could it be that flocks . . . up to a mile long were sighted to within only a few years of its extinction?" Steadman asks. Hunting the bird by then was no longer much pursued.

Researchers think the pigeon had evolved to depend on congregating in enormous numbers to stimulate mating, nesting and other behavior essential to reproduction.

OC Those last great flocks, impressive to human eyes, were fatally

small by the pigeons' requirements.

Only a columnist can blithely leap from extinct birds to scarce fish; but I had begun hearing intriguing similarities in the apparent need of shad to school in large, dense masses.

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