American Shad — Delicacy & Mystery
The arrival of American Shad (Alosa sapidissima) on the seafood scene is an annual harbinger of spring. These highly migratory fish have a long history in Maryland as an important food source. George Washington was the most prominent shad fisherman in our region, landing thousands of pounds on the Potomac River. Shad are “anadromous fish”, meaning they live in salt water and spawn in fresh water. You would marvel at the sight of these magnificent fish running up Deer Creek (a tributary of the Susquehanna) in the rolling hills of northern Maryland, after having swam thousands of miles to get there. They are genetically programmed to return to the very spot they were born. Adult American shad live in the ocean for approximately five years before returning to their “natal river” to reproduce. They winter off of North Carolina and summer off the Bay of Fundy in Maine. In the five years an American shad spends in the ocean before returning to their home stream, a fish will swim almost 12,000 miles!!
Depending on their geographical location, American shad may spawn once and die, or they may survive to make several spawning runs per lifetime. This “repeat” spawning in American shad differs according to latitude. Shad that spawn in more northerly rivers may survive to spawn several times; however, most American shad native to rivers south of Cape Fear, North Carolina, die after spawning. In Maryland, repeat spawning adult American shad account for 22-45% of the migrating adults. Spawning American shad females will release almost 500,000 eggs each time.
Commercial and recreational fishing in Maryland for American shad has been closed since 1980. The stock has rebounded slowly. A fish ladder was built over the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River above Harve De Grace Maryland. Over 130,000 shad pass over the ladder every year now! There is a catch and release fishery below the Conowingo and it is not unusual for anglers to catch and release 100 shad per day. After spawning, adult American shad return to the sea and migrate northward to their summer feeding grounds near the Gulf of Maine. Fertilized eggs are carried by river currents and hatch within 7-10 days. Larvae drift with the current until they mature into juveniles which remain in nursery areas, feeding on zooplankton and terrestrial insects.
There is a small window of opportunity for these great swimmers. They are available for about the next six weeks, through the end of March. Current prices on roe sets are reasonable. As spring weather moves north, the shad will “run” in almost all major river systems along the Atlantic coast, including the Potomac, Nanticoke, Delaware River, Hudson River, Connecticut River and many more. Put this local delicacy on your menu today. You can almost taste the history behind this storied fish.