Many areas in this country have iconic species that add to the sense of place for the people who live there. The Texas Gulf Coast is busy working to restore the iconic Kemp’s ridley sea turtle. Here we are restoring the American shad (Alosa sapidissima) to the Connecticut River. The dams in Massachusetts built in the late 1700s extirpated shad from the upper valley. The comeback of the American shad is due in part to the fish passage facilities added at all the dams from Long Island Sound to Wilder, Vermont.
Shad intertwine in the history of our valley and our country. First Americans caught shad during spring runs and taught colonists how to catch shad to stay alive. The petroglyphs at Bellows Falls are the markers left by the tribes that used the falls as a site for capturing shad. George Washington was a well-known shad angler.
American shad are typically 20 to 24 inches in length and as anadromous fish spend most of their lives in saltwater. As adults, they travel in large schools along coastal areas and may migrate more than 12,000 miles over four or five years until they are sexually mature and return to freshwater rivers to spawn.
Each shad river along the Atlantic seaboard has a distinct spawning stock that homes in on only their birth river. Shad are broadcast open water spawners. A single female accompanied by several males releases up to 600,000 eggs over several sessions. At best, 1% of fertilized eggs will become adult shad. Fish that do survive can live for 10 years and will return to the Connecticut River to spawn several times in their lifetimes.
Larval and juvenile American shad are prey for a variety of predators including American eels, bass, and striped bass. Once shad enter the ocean, they are food for sharks, blue fish, tuna, and porpoises. Adult shad in rivers have few predators other than human fishers.
American shad are native to the East Coast. Once introduced into the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento River system in California in the mid 1800s, shad have now spread, through additional stocking or natural migration throughout the Great Lakes, West Coast rivers, all the way to Alaska.
Their Latin name, sapidissima, is variously interpreted to mean delicious, savory, good to eat, and most delicious, yet they are such a bony fish that one First American tribe called them a porcupine turned inside out. One way to make the fish more palatable is slow-cook fillets by steaming or poaching to dissolve the smaller bones. The most original version of this approach was used by a fisher friend who cooked his shad in the top rack of his automatic dishwasher set on high dry temperature. Another method is “planking.” Bone the shad fillet as best you can and nail the fillet to a plank with strips of salt pork or bacon and stand the plank up, right next to an open fire. The filleting and the slow cooking make the fish more enjoyable. The shad roe (egg sacks) are excellent fried or sautéed without any special treatment.
We are making progress toward fully restoring the American shad in the Connecticut River. We do have a way to go but restoring this iconic fish to its historic range will well reward us when we are successful.
David L. Deen
River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council.