Okay. It's time to gear up. The recent rain and some big tides should mark the beginning of some good runs of fish along the coast and up the Merrimack River. Although there have been some shad, stripers, white perch and salmon starting to show the past couple of weeks, the lack of water flow seemed to impede their advance. Hopefully this latest dump will get the fish really moving.
Although many of the favorite haunts along the North Shore like the Annisquam, Essex, Parker and Merrimack Rivers have holdover fish you can catch all year, the presence of fish lice marks the newbies in the spring.
For you dedicated shad fishermen, they really started to move in the Merrimack this past week. Rock Village was pretty hot just before the storm rolled through and will be again. Although a few fish were caught in Lawrence last week, the run is just starting.
Found in waters from Florida to Labrador, this largest member of the herring family is one of the most abundant anadromous fish on the East Coast. Historically the shad has been an important food source while the eggs or 'roe' are considered to be a delicacy.
The shad is very unusual in that it's life cycle depends on where it is found along the coast. Fish native to Florida and the Carolinas are semelparous, that is they return to their natal rivers to spawn at 4 years old and die soon after. They lay between 300,000 to 400,000 eggs. In an oddity of nature, the farther north the fish are born, the later in the life cycle they spawn and increasing numbers are interoparous, that is they live to return another year to spawn.
For example, in the Delaware river the number of adults that survive to spawn a second time is 15%, while somewhere between 30-50% return in our Massachusetts rivers. In the St. Johns River in Canada almost 80% return to spawn. In the Merrimack and Connecticut rivers, the average age of the first spawners moves to 5, however, the number of eggs released drops to between 125,000 to 250,000.
Since the shad eggs cannot survive in salt water, the spawning adults will often run hundreds of miles upstream into fresh water to lay their eggs. Unlike salmon, however, they do not seek out tiny streams and make a bed into which they drop their eggs. Instead, the females release their eggs into the mainstream where any number of males that are hovering about just for that purpose instantly fertilize them. The females often release eggs several times on their way upstream.
The eggs mature in anywhere from 4 to 9 days. It is good that the females lay so many eggs, as the young produced become a major food source for almost every other fish in the river system. The young migrate out of the rivers in the early fall, having grown to become 2-3 inches long and weighing about half an ounce. When they hit the ocean, they fall prey to stripers, bluefish and numerous other ocean fishes. They are an important part of the natural food chain.
These tiny fish slowly migrate to a place in the ocean off the Carolinas where they spend the winter. In the spring they migrate north as young fish, summering in the Bay of Funday. At age 4 or 5 they return to their natal rivers to spawn. By this time they range in size from 2 to 7 pounds with the females being larger than the males.
Shad have an unusual ability to detect ultrasound waves. This is important as Clupeid fishes (herring and shads) are the main source of food for the echo-locating cetaceans such as the harbor porpoise and the bottlenose dolphin. In studies by Mann, Higgs, Tavolga, and Popper, they have found that when the foraging fish "ping" a school of shad, they send out an ultrasonic sound that reflects off the fish and back to them. This way they can find the school without seeing them. The shad are one of the few fish in the ocean that can hear this "ping" and they use this to avoid being caught. In experiments with bottlenose dolphins, it was found that the shad can pick up the sound up to 187 meters away.
Catching these fish as they head upstream can be a bit of a challenge, but they sure can put up a good fight before they come to the rail. Using spinning gear with 4 to 8-pound test line works well. Although they will come to spinners and spoons, shad darts probably work the best. Darts range in size from very tiny to up to 1/2 ounce. Because you want to fish for shad near the bottom of the river, the terminal rig must be heavy enough to reach down to them. Using heavier darts will do that, but the fish prefer smaller bait. To get the small darts down, use split shot up the line about 18 inches.
The darts come in a host of colors, however, the traditional one is a redheaded, white-bodied dart with a white or yellow buck tail. If the fishing is slow, switch colors or use a set in tandem. Fly fishermen often use a quick-rate sinking line, a short leader, and a weighted, short-shanked streamer that is brightly colored. Check with Surfland on Plum Island to see what is working best. Don't be afraid to ask others on the river what is working for them.
For the second year in a row there seems to be a good run of white perch (Morone Americana, for you latin fans) building in the Mill/Parker River. These are a delightful fish that make for great eating.
The white perch is a close relative to the striper (Morone Saxatillis), but it is on average shorter, stockier and smaller. The white perch is variable in coloration, ranging from pale olive or silvery green on the sides and silvery white on the belly to a much darker tone with a little hint of silver, especially in inland freshwater specimens. If you want to try for them, worms and small minnows make excellent bait.
Day Fish Viewing Trip:
If you want a nice educational day trip with the kids, go to the Amoskeag Fishways Learning and Visitors Center in Manchester, N.H. View migrating fish fighting their way up the river through the underwater viewing windows. They also have interactive exhibits and live turtles, frogs an salmon on display. It is open seven days a week from 9 am to 5 pm during May and June.