Answer to the fish's prayer

ON THE BAY

Faith: Restoration programs and breaches of dams have reopened Chesapeake arteries to the glory of shad runs.

May 07, 2004|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

WHO ANSWERS the prayers of the fishes?"

It's my friend Tom Wisner on the phone. Tickled as a child with a new toy, the old Chesapeake Bay poet sings the start of a song in progress:

Who answers the prayers of the fishes?

assures their abundance and more?

Who guides them to life everlasting,

as they swim to the far distant shore?

Wisner long ago transcended niggling questions like whether fish really pray, and to whom. I mulled it for a week, and decided they do; and sometimes, we answer.

I decided on a recent spring morning, driving up U.S. 1 to Conowingo, site of the bay's biggest dam, rising 100 feet across the lower Susquehanna River.

Built in 1928, Conowingo was impregnable, the last of four dams sealing off 440 miles of the Susquehanna from spring spawning runs of ocean-dwelling shad, a fish prized throughout the bay for sport and commerce.

All over the Chesapeake it was a similar story -- dams across the James and Rappahannock in Virginia, the Patapsco above Baltimore, the Potomac above Washington. These, and countless obstructions like roadways and rail culverts, amputated thousands of miles of prime shad runs, deadening the bay's watershed to one of spring's great enthusiasms.

Overfishing and pollution abetted damming. The shad's numbers plummeted. Maryland and Virginia have had closed seasons for many years.

But the shad -- goaded by whatever imprints them, salmonlike, to their natal rivers -- never stopped coming back, generation after generation spawning in vastly reduced circumstances, forever wanting upstream of those unyielding dams to reclaim their birthright.

The imagery is exquisite: year after year, for more than a century in some places, these remnants of a once-great nation, insistently pressing soft faces (shad feed by filtering plankton, and their snouts are almost fragile) against concrete fortresses.

This is keeping the faith, entreating to go home again against all odds. This is the fishes' prayer.

Flesh butting softly against yards-thick concrete. It would seem an unequal contest. But it is the dams that are yielding.

In recent years, as part of the bay restoration program, society's desires have finally aligned with the shad's.

At Richmond on the James, at Fredericksburg on the Rappahannock, at Little Falls on the Potomac, at all four of the Susquehanna's hydro facilities, we are breaching and notching and blowing up dams, providing fish elevators and passageways over and around others.

More than 1,000 miles of Chesapeake arteries have reopened to the fuller possibilities of spring. A shad can again travel from the ocean to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, and soon, the length of Pennsylvania to Binghamton, N.Y.

To be sure, we're granted no miracle. A full recovery will take years of ambitious hatchery programs, restocking the rivers with millions of baby shad, working out real problems that persist with passage over a couple of the reopened dams.

But it's going to happen. You can feel it -- literally.

I joined Leon Senft at Conowingo. He and his buddies have been casting for shad by the big dam for more than half a century.

Beginning when the dogwood blossoms white, ending a month or so later when the catalpa trees blush purple, they've sought the shad in good times and bad -- and now good again.

It's catch and release now. A real season won't likely reopen soon. But in recent years, Senft has hooked as many as 175 3-pound to 6-pound shad in a day.

Anglers speak of "catching" shad as if we were in control. But it's the silver shad -- superb fighters, toothsome when baked, and bright, inspiring coin of spring's realm -- that hook for life most who hook them.

I caught my first one as a kid on the Marshyhope Creek in Federalsburg. The run there dwindled long ago to where it was not worth trying, but not a spring passes that I don't dream of it.

Until Senft motioned for me to cast into the Susquehanna where he'd been fishing, it had been decades since I caught a shad. They still hit like a freight train and battle furiously -- and they thrill an old guy in 2004 nearly as much as they did a kid in 1959.

For today's kids, shad are proving more than a thrill. Author Sandy Burk, in a lovely, 18-page booklet, traces how a fourth-grade project begun in 1995 to restore Potomac shad inspired two pupils now on college science scholarships. The shad they released have begun returning from their ocean wanderings through a breached dam to Washington.

Granting shads' prayers hardly makes us godlike, or even good Noahs. No Ark is this planet under our stewardship, given the accelerating decline of species. But it's a start.

(Limited copies of Pearls of the River, by Sandy Burk, are available for $12.60 from pearlsoftheriver@aol.com.)

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