Angler's book highlights the shad's place in history

ON THE BAY

February 21, 2003

"POOR SHAD, where is thy redress?"

That lament came in 1849 from Henry David Thoreau, dismayed at the dams that were systematically amputating one of the North American springtime's great enthusiasms.

From earliest Colonial times, nothing symbolized nature's bounty in April, May and June more than countless legions of fat, silver shad returning from the oceans, penetrating coastal rivers as far as free-flowing water would permit.

It was likely that shad spawning in the Potomac near Washington in 1607 caused Captain John Smith to marvel about fish so thick that his crew attempted to dip them with a frying pan, according to author John McPhee.

From Laborador's Nain to the Ogeechee of Florida, from South Carolina's Pee Dee and Virginia's James and Potomac to the Delaware and Connecticut, the American shad's annual return knit the eastern edge of the continent into one grand festival of renewal.

The pre-dammed Susquehanna, source of half the Chesapeake Bay's fresh water, bore shad to Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Just as the sacred cod of Massachusetts is [that state's] accepted emblem, so the shad may rightly be considered the piscatorial representative of the states bordering the Chesapeake," wrote Rachel Carson in 1936.

So I am pleased to announce, a century and a half after Thoreau's plaint, that the shad has received a measure of redress. It's The Founding Fish, a fine new book by McPhee, whose masterful writing has long set the literary bar for nonfiction.

In his 26th book, the author of classics such as Coming Into The Country and Encounters With The Archdruid, is more in the foreground than usual - it turns out McPhee has long been obsessed with catching shad.

The book is a delightful evocation of people and place - of anglers taken with the shad who become more knowledgeable about little stretches of rivers like the Delaware than they do about their wives.

That's no exaggeration. What man makes a lifetime study of his wife's every mood and season and whim, endlessly conjures ways to tempt her, suffers cold and wet and early rising to be at her side as much as possible?

Yet, for the sport and taste of shad, many will do that and more - and The Founding Fish will have you angling to join their fraternity (yes, women fish for shad too, but the author mentions none among the truly obligate).

McPhee is unmatched at weaving disparate and esoteric facts into a rich and flowing narrative. A reader will learn about the biology and ecology of the shad - how to dissect one, how to cook it, and why the roe may be various colors. He'll learn what it is that makes shad run upstream and why every shad on the continent bucks the Bay of Fundy's 60-foot tides to congregate there each summer.

Particularly intriguing to a Chesapeake dweller is McPhee's evidence that shad must gather in extraordinarily dense schools to trigger spawning.

It may explain why many of our bay's once-great shad rivers, fished down to remnant populations by the 1970's, have never rebounded, even after 20 years of fishing bans.

A reader will also learn how the succulence of baked shad caused Confederate Gen. George Pickett (of the fabled charge) to miss most of a crucial battle in which half his men were killed and the fate of the Confederacy was sealed.

Indeed, historical accounts are replete with descriptions of famished settlers greeting the return of the savory shad.

Mindful of this, the British Army occupying Philadelphia in the harsh winter of 1778 barricaded the Schuylkill River to head off the anticipated shad migration and cut off a vital food source for George Washington's starving army in Valley Forge.

The shad made it through, but McPhee discounts the widely accepted story that the shad saved them from starvation and turned the course of American history (thus the shad as a founding fish). By the spring of 1778, the soldiers at Valley Forge were already past the worst of their food shortage. But it remains one of those stories that's "too good to check out," as we in the news business joke.

One little gem of shad esoterica is the Algonquian legend about the origin of the shad, which for all its superior eating qualities is a notoriously bony fish.

It seems that a disgruntled porcupine complained to the Great Manitou that he needed a new start in life. The spirit turned the quilly beast inside out, threw it in the river, and called it a shad.

Soon the shad may get some real redress, McPhee says. By 2020, 85 percent of the dams on Eastern rivers will be approaching their 50-year life span. Pressure is growing to breach these old structures or provide fish passages over or around them. On the Chesapeake alone, more than a thousand miles of historic shad spawning rivers have been restored. Runs on the Susquehanna are picking up nicely.

It's good news for all of us who, like McPhee, believe that "half a shad is twice a trout."

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