My son and I had some fun fishing for shad in Deer Creek near Darlington, in Harford County, Maryland. Hickory shad were there in abundance, the best numbers anglers have seen in a few years.

Here’s something I wrote about the silvery shad 18 years ago in the Baltimore Sun.

-o-

WHEN I moved to Maryland in 1976, I met a lot of crusty old guys who spoke of a certain silvery fish the way other men spoke of great baseball players.

“You should have seen Ted Williams’ swing” had the same nostalgic ring as, “You should have seen the shad run in the Susquehanna.” The message: You missed both, kid, and neither ain’t never comin’ back.

Once upon a time, the sleek shad – “the poor man’s salmon” – had appeared in breathtaking abundance. Capt. John Smith touted their thick numbers in his accounts of the Virginia colony and Chesapeake Bay. By the early 1800s, shad constituted the most important commercial catch on the Susquehanna River; millions of the long-distance swimmers ended up in nets there every spring.

Farmers used them for fertilizer. Watermen caught them by the ton. Trains took them to markets in Philadelphia, New York and Boston.

But something happened to shad. Men harvested too many of them. Men built dams on their spawning rivers.

By the 1970s, the shad was a ghost fish around here. The old crusty guys longed for the great runs that had occurred each April when they were boys. Maryland’s commercial catch of the fish slid from a peak of 7 million pounds in 1890 to just 24,000 pounds in 1980, when the state banned the harvest of shad. No substantial recovery was expected before the turn of the century – if ever.

Well, the century has turned.

And the shad have returned. I’ve lived long enough to see them – throngs of them in freshwater rivers at the edges of the Baltimore metropolitan area. I looked down from atop a boulder at a turn in a river and I’m sure I saw at least 200 hickory shad (smaller cousin to the American shad) in a 5-square-yard eddy to the left of a riffle of white water. The shad appeared to be holding in the eddy, each awaiting a turn at a run through the faster current. They were stacked six deep, casting a cross-hatch of shadows on the sand below them.

Occasionally one of the egg-laden females turned and flashed her silver side. In another eddy on the far side of the river there were dozens more, all appearing to be at rest after a fight through the white water.

Pardon my use of the overused word “awesome” here, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the experience of seeing such a mass of fish that had traveled hundreds of miles from the ocean and up the bay and into a stream in a woods near a noisy highway.

The old-timers told me I’d never see it. This fish had been harvested almost out of existence before wise men – scientists, in particular – predicted the collapse of the shad fishery and argued for a halt in the harvest. (The moratorium on catching and killing shad stays in effect until the same wise men tell us otherwise.)

Simple (and admittedly simplistic) lesson: Leave them alone, and they’ll come home.

I recall a quote from Bill Goldsborough, a fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: “We don’t know how to deal with abundance. We see fish out there, we want to catch ’em. That’s human nature. But we’re trying to resist that way of thinking now.”

As a culinary treat, the shad is a far cry from salmon. So there are no big market forces to subvert its comeback. There’s just science and the passion in humans to fix what an earlier generation almost destroyed. I don’t need to eat shad. I could be quite content just watching them every spring from a big rock in a river.

— April 20, 2001

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