Shad fishing is a great way to both fill your plate with a great delicacy and have a lot of fun on light tackle. As the herring start moving up the Merrimack River and the water temperature rises to about 50 degrees, the shad will start their spawning run. This usually starts in late April, peaking in mid-May and dwindling out in mid-June. Another correlation is the flowering of the Forsythia and Serviceberry(nicknamed the shadbush for obvious reasons) bushes. When they start to bloom the fish are in!

The American shad (Alossa sapidissima to you Latin Fans), begin their run up the coastline in early spring, moving into the larger rivers where they slowly adjust to the change from salt to fresh water. 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 five, however, the number of eggs released drops to between 125,000 to 250,000. 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 Fundy. At age four or five 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. The largest shad caught in Massachusetts was a 11 pounds 4 oz. taken in 1986 in the Connecticut River.

The shad used to be counted in the millions as they ran the rivers. It is estimated that at one time over 50,000,000 shad a year used to run up the Delaware River alone! It only has about 200,000 now. In fact, the spring run of shad prevented starvation for the troops at Valley Forge during the Revolution. Pollution and overfishing were the key culprits in their decline. 

The runs in the Merrimack over the last 30 years has varied quite a bit depending on a lot of environmental reasons. The low figure was the result of a huge flood that spring which shut down the fish lift on the river. We had a real spike in the period between 1999 with 56,000, a high of 76,717 in 2001 and then a slow decline to 2003 at 55,000. In 2006 we had a huge flood that season that shut down the fish lift with only 1,205 going up river. Since then the run has ranged from 13,000 to 25,000 fish. 

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 four or five they return to their natal rivers to spawn. By this time they range in size from two to seven pounds with the females being larger than the males. 

The spawning fish have to overcome many obstacles as they head upstream. The first in the Merrimack River is the dam in Lawrence. Here a fish ladder has been constructed to help them move up the river. From there they run north, laying eggs all along the route. 

There are a number of good places to fish from the shore or boat in the river. If you are fishing from shore, There are three excellent spots. The first is called Rock’s Village in West Newbury just upriver from the Rocks Bridge.  It is actually called Ferry Park but everyone calls it Rock’s Village. There is a boat launch called Ferry’s Landing. There are three protrusions out into the stream that form great natural fishing points. 

The first is at the launch. It is small there, but three or four guys can fish there. The shoreline downstream can also be good. Upstream of the boat launch is the best place to fish. From the boat launch to the bump that sticks out produces good fish. we have found the best time to fish here is on the outgoing tide. Parking along Church Street is good. 

In North Andover you can fish at a spot called Spiro’s for the restaurant that used to be here. It now has Nancy Chippendale’s Dance Studio in that spot with parking in behind. It is a private parking area so be on your best behavior. You can wade here but be careful as the rocks can be slick. Follow some of the paths to the best locations. 

The third spot is the dam in Lawrence. The boat launch can be a good spot if there are no other fishermen. Go upriver when the river is low. Great fishing here, but you MUST be careful around the boat launch as there are holes there. 

Next Week: Equipment and technique for fishing shad.