Rediscovering nature

ON THE BAY

Return: A trip along the headwaters of the Choptank finds evidence that shad might be on their way back.

May 05, 2000|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

GREENSBORO -- Here in its headwaters, the Choptank River is a place you'd want to come to in spring, even if it had no fish at all, let alone the ones we're hoping for today.

Most Marylanders know the Choptank for its broad, lower reaches, flowing to the horizons beneath U.S. 50 at Cambridge, a scale fit for reflecting sunrises, sunsets and full moons.

But a few dozen miles upstream, the river narrows, and its translucent, dark-stained waters are canopied by forest. Dogwood and viburnum splash its meanders with white. Butterflies sip from swamp azaleas.

Missing no more

The headwaters have an intimate personality denied the majestic lower river -- banks that sport rope swings hung from oaks, landings carved out by canoeists and fishermen, and beeches carved with lovers' initials.

Especially in spring, there's more to these headwaters than meets the eye -- and this spring, there may be signs of something missing for 20 years.

On a late April day, with Department of Natural Resources biologist Steve Minkkinen, we're realizing a fisherman's fantasy -- turning the river inside out to see virtually everything lurking beneath the calm surface of the upper Choptank.

Minkkinen is driving a custom-built, electroshocking boat. Its bow features two bushel basket-sized electrodes that send out a current, momentarily stunning whatever's in the water and bringing it to the surface.

DNR employees Matt Baldwin and Chuck Stence are poised with big nets on long poles ready to dip our quarry. As Minkkinen jockeys the shock boat around snags, over logs and through overhanging brush, Stence hits a foot pedal that sends electricity jolting through the depths.

Fish eerily surface

Silently, eerily, fish begin blooming from the dark depths, red-gold when you first see them, then shading lemony, then silver as they rise to the surface.

White perch, yellow perch, catfish, carp and a northern red horse all drift by with no action from the bow netters. Also ignored are great silver boils of spring-spawning herring that erupt from pocket after pocket in the river's bends.

Also ignored are dozens of chunky striped bass. Minkkinen figures they come here after finishing their own spawning downriver to fuel up on herring before heading out to the Chesapeake.

Suddenly: "Whoa, back up, back up, back up!" Stence is plunging the net deep as it will go, coming up with a shining, full-bodied fish about a foot and a half in length, a distinctive row of spots along its upper back.

It's Alosa sapidissima, an American, or white, shad -- what Minkkinen was most hoping would be here.

Checking for marks

He won't know if it's "one of ours" until later. At the lab, he'll examine the shad for identifying marks from a chemical bath three or four years ago in the state fish hatchery he runs.

Odds are high it will be hatchery-produced, a good sign for the ambitious restocking program Maryland began in the mid-1990s to revive one of the bay's premier spring fisheries.

Shad, caught by the millions of pounds annually in Maryland a century ago, were virtually fished out of most Maryland rivers by 1980. Until recently, the only technique for producing young shad in hatcheries was terribly inefficient.

Eggs and sperm were "stripped" from captured spawners, which killed the fish. And because females ripen and release only part of their eggs at a time, most went to waste.

Now, Minkkinen says, a hormone synthesized by the University of Maryland's Center for Marine Biotechnology can induce the shad to spawn all their eggs at once in the state's Manning fish hatchery.

This way, he can get 5 million to 10 million little shad from 600 females. The shad spend a few years growing in the oceans before returning to the rivers where they were released, so this is the first year the Choptank might see appreciable returns.

It looks promising. Only one American shad turned up in 1999. This year, more than a dozen have been recaptured.

Evaluating effort

Hickory shad, the American shad's smaller cousins, return after fewer years in the ocean, and Minkkinen is seeing a significant upsurge of these in both the Choptank and the Patuxent, the two rivers where he's focused his stocking.

Combined with earlier shad-stocking on the Susquehanna River, and with programs removing dams and other obstacles to spawning shad on bay rivers, it seems possible that the spring runs that once graced virtually every Chesapeake tributary will return.

Shad are a magnificent sport fish, as well as good eating, and their return could translate into major tourism dollars for Maryland's river towns.

I have spent 25 years accompanying biologists such as Minkkinen as they take the bay's spring pulses of spawning shad and other species. It was always beautiful out on the water; but for so many years, it was also dispiriting. The biologists were monitoring decline.

Now, though we have many years to go for a full return of shad, restoration is becoming a reality, renewing a vital element of the Chesapeake spring.

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