Springtime Silver in the RiversPosted on: April 25, 2019 By: FHMD
In the spring, Maryland’s Chesapeake swells with silver: shad and river herring. Like salmon, these fish are anadromous: the adults run upstream into fresh water to spawn, then return to the Atlantic Ocean to live for the rest of the year. The new generations develop from fertilized eggs suspended in stream currents to swimming fry and then juveniles, feeding and growing over the summer before migrating to the ocean, where they somehow meet the adult stocks for the winter. In spring, the cycle repeats itself.
Research indicates that these fish live their entire lives within a relatively narrow temperature window of roughly 45-700 F., with variations between species. There are four, all belonging to the genus Alosa: American shad (Alosa sapidissima), hickory shad (Alosa mediocris), alewife herring (Alosa pseudoharengus), and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). Each migrates hundreds to thousands of miles over the course of a year.
After a long winter, these epic processions offered fresh food to all sorts of hungry, piscivorous bay residents, from great blue herons, ospreys, river otters, and rockfish to humans, especially on the James, Potomac, and Susquehanna rivers. As our lands and waters warm in the sun, the runs coincide with other springtime occurrences like the blooming of shadbush, the leafing out of trees, and the arrival of songbirds.
Now, why would it be beneficial for a fish species to develop such a strenuous and perilous life cycle? What food sources are extensive enough to fuel these fish by the millions? How do they avoid all sorts of predators?
We have the best answers for American shad, because, through the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, they were the most valuable commercial fish along the Atlantic coast, including the Chesapeake. It’s quite a story. If you’d like the full dose, read John McPhee’s classic The Founding Fish (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: New York, 2002), but here’s a quick summary. These fish swim constantly, forcing water with dissolved oxygen over their gills, which also have long, fan-like rakers on the after edges that filter out zooplankton (especially tiny crustaceans). Shad eat low on the food web, tapping the huge sources of plankton within their temperature range in coastal waters.
For shad and herring, there seems to be enough advantage in starting off their young in upstream waters with fewer predators than the open ocean to make the long migrations worthwhile. The adults produce prodigious numbers of eggs to ensure survival of a few. In the ocean, shad travel in large but tightly coordinated schools whose numbers can confuse large rockfish, tuna, and marine mammals such as dolphins. They are fast, powerful swimmers, as anyone who has caught and released one on rod and line during a spawning run can attest. Columns of muscles directly attached to their backbones by legendarily profuse bones drive their streamlined shapes and deeply forked tails. Their eyesight is keen, and their scales fall off readily, making them slippery to grab. Finally, they have sensitive wide-range hearing systems that can detect even the high frequencies dolphins use for echolocation.
Because the other three Alosa species have a lower value to us, we have learned less about them, but they follow similar life cycles. All four are edible to us as well as aquatic predators. The American shad’s Latin species name, sapidissima, means most savory, with good reason. Both river herring have historically been popular salted or smoked. The roe of all three has always been a prized springtime food. At George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, haul seine crews caught enough from the Potomac to sell shad by the hundreds and herring by the thousands. The hickory shad’s species name, mediocris, suggests only modest value, but more on them below.
Today, shad fishing on Chesapeake’s rivers and tributaries is catch-and-release only, but if you want to eat one, it’s ‘way easier to buy roe or a boned fillet at a seafood market (yes, there’s a special art to that process) than do it yourself. Just appreciate their extraordinary power and release them gently. The strongest run of American shad is in the Potomac.
Hickory shad appear to be thriving in all the Chesapeake’s rivers and they strike small lures and flies. Adults run 16-22 inches long; they are extraordinary athletes. Wading in a stream, you may have to look up to see a hickory when it jumps.
Wade- and bank-fishing for quicksilver hickory shad is a fine excuse for a walk (appropriately clothed) with friends along springtime Chesapeake creeks and rivers. Good locations abound: the Potomac around Fletcher’s Cove, Mattawoman Creek at Mason Springs (the Rt. 225 Bridge), or the Patuxent at Queen Anne’s Bridge. More spots include Patapsco Valley State Park, Gunpowder State Park above Route 40, the Susquehanna’s Deer and Octoraro Creeks, the Choptank at Red Bridges, Tuckahoe Creek above Hillsboro, Marshyhope Creek around Federalsburg, and the Pocomoke above Snow Hill. To us, there is nothing mediocre about them!
Tackle for hickories
My preference is to keep things simple:
- Spinning—a light rod and reel spooled with 6# braid, a 3’ leader of 10# fluorocarbon, a colorful shad dart (1/32, 1/16, or 1/8-oz., depending on current) on a 4” dropper, and a tiny gold or silver spoon trailing 18-24” behind on the main leader.
- Fly—a 5-6-wt. rod with 5’ sink-tip line, a 4’ leader of 10# fluorocarbon, and a small fly. My go-to pattern is Joe Bruce’s old faithful, red over yellow marabou on a gold- or silver-wrapped #8 hook.
Be sure to check out the 2019 Maryland Guide to Fishing and Crabbing for information on fishing licenses and regulations. Also, check out the Plan Your Trip section of our website to find lodging options, fishing charters and guides, and outdoor retailers to get the most out of a fishing trip to Maryland.
Why not add a relaxing road trip to your itinerary while you’re fishing in Maryland? Take a little time with the family on your fishing trip to cruise our state’s scenic byways.