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As the Shadbush Blooms

It is getting to be that time of year again, where you will start to see the white blossoms dotting the landscape. It is the plant Amelanchier also known as the shadbush. It is nicknamed that, because its bloom corresponds roughly with the spawning run of the shad fish up the rivers of the Northeast.

The title of this post was “borrowed” from a children’s book. It is a book about the Lenni Lenape Indians who once  inhabited this area of the Delaware River Valley three hundred plus years ago. It is a tale of family and culture and tradition. And it shows how the flowering of this plant foretells the coming of a more bountiful time of year. This book also made me realize how deeply I am rooted in this area. For the past thirty plus years, every time I see a flowering Amelanchier I know that soon the shad will start their run. Every year I vow to get a few evenings of fishing in–the kind I did as a kid. Some years I find an evening or two to sneak away, but most of the time (especially lately)  life seems to  get in the way.

The good thing about fishing for shad is the effort/reward ratio really leans towards reward. I never really got into fishing that much. My brother is an avid fly fisherman, and I suppose the idea of it is nice. Watching a good fly fisherman ply his trade really is something. The way they flick the wrist and make the line dance through the air until the tiny lure lands lightly on surface– simulating an irresistible snack for a giant patrolling trout. A good fisherman can make it look easy.

However it isn’t that easy at all. First of all there is a tremendous amount of equipment–all of which is pretty expensive. Second the fishing pole is immense, and a lot more cumbersome than it looks, and third the reel is quite a bit more complicated than you would think. Add that to the fact that trout are pretty picky about what they will bite, and it adds up to the distinct possibility of an evening spent with no results. (I believe the technical term is “getting skunked”)

When you fish for shad on the other hand, as long as you go while they are running, you have a decent shot at bringing home a fish or two.  Conventional wisdom says that while the shad are here in the fresh waters, they do not eat. They are hell bent on the task at hand–returning to the spot where they were born to spawn. (However most Delaware River fisherman will tell you that is not true. Many a shad has been caught on a fly–or other type of lure that resembles food.)

At any rate the easiest thing to catch them on is a shad dart. It is a multi colored (mostly white and red) little lure that the shad will hit more out of reaction or anger than a need to eat. it is a crank–underwater lure that is pretty inexpensive, and simple to use. Couple it with a rod and closed reel, (the kind with the fool proof button for casting) and you are eliminating the potential (or in my case the inevitable) line tangle. Waders can be used, or you can fish from shore. If you are fishing from shore be sure to buy the heavier darts, if you are wading, go with the lighter ones. Bring at least a dozen, you are bound to lose a few.  Go in the evening, after seven for best results.

There is a ton more information on shad and shad fishing here

So what do you do with a shad once you caught it? Shad fillets can be quite tasty if cooked correctly. I have found that they do need some seasonings, as it is a rather bland fish. However shad meat has almost twice as much omega-3 as salmon. So if you catch a buck shad, you can fillet it. (Shad meat is quite bony, so be prepared  to pick through it gingerly.) However the real treat is the roe.

Shad roe has been eaten as a delicacy since back in the Lenni Lenape days, and the tradition has carried on through the last few hundred years. Legend has it that shad roe soufflé was a favorite of George Washington. Henry David Thoreau wrote about the shad migration in “A Week on the Merrimack.”  Cole Porter crooned about it in “Let’s Do It.” Years of overfishing has made shad roe a bit more scarce, but you can still buy it at some of the better fish markets in NYC. (And up and down the east coast.)

There is a number of ways to cook it. You can pan fry it in a little butter or bacon grease, (Click here for a good recipe)– you can bake it in cakes like crab cakes, in a soufflé the way George Washington preferred, or you can serve it cold with crackers like caviar.  The cooking–or preparing of the roe is the easy part, removing it from the fish is the hard part.  Click here for a video tutorial. (Set to the immortal words of Cole Porter.)

How terribly sophisticated and yet primeval to serve homemade caviar at a dinner party from a fish that you caught? How can that be outdone?

And on top of that, to spend an evening casting into the current under a shad bush the way the Lenape did over three centuries ago–I can’t think of a better way to herald in the spring.

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