American shad

The American shad or Atlantic shad, Alosa sapidissima, is a species of anadromous fish in family Clupeidae of order Clupeiformes. The shad is a member of the herring family.


The American shad is the largest member of the herring family. Shad have silver bodies and a green back, with large scales and a deeply forked tail. The males (or “bucks”) are smaller than the female, weighing about 1 to 3 pounds when spawning; females are generally 3 to 8 pounds. Both genders tend to run a little larger on the East Coast of the United States. It has a rich delicate fatty flesh, prized by some and despised by others.

Shad are shot through with small bones. There is a great controversy over the taste of shad, opinions running from inedible (some fishermen cut shad up to use for bait) to superb; some esteem it above the famous Atlantic salmon and consider it flavorful enough to not require sauces, herbs or spices (although most will sprinkle it with vinegar or lemon juice). It can be boiled, filleted and fried in butter or baked; baking shad at a low temperature for an extended period will dissolve the tiny bones, although the texture of the flesh will suffer.

Aside from the fish itself, the eggs, called “shad roe”, are a prized gourmet item (although, again, some people find them inedible). Several thousand small eggs, roughly the size of a BB, are contained in a pair of reddish-orange membranes just inside the female’s belly, running from about an inch behind the gills almost to the anal opening. The roe are most often fried and eaten for breakfast with eggs or a starch, although dinner recipes exist.

The shad was enormously important as a food fish and protein source in early coastal settlements due to its great numbers and ease of taking when spawning; in 1789, an estimated 830,000 shad were caught from the Merrimack River alone. Traditionally it was caught along with salmon in set nets which were suspended from poles driven into the river bed reasonably close to shore in tidal water. George Washington worked as a shad fisherman in 1781. A good account of the early importance of shad to feeding coastal populations in the 18th century is contained in The Founding Fish by John McPhee. The American shad is the official state fish of Connecticut.


The shad spends most of its life at sea, but swims up fresh rivers to spawn. Unlike salmon, the fish survive breeding and can return to the sea; they do not inhabit fresh water except to spawn. At sea, shad are schooling fish; thousands are often seen at the surface in spring, summer, and autumn. They are hard to find in the winter, as they tend to go deeper before spawning season; they have been pulled up in nets as deep as 65 fathoms.

Like other herrings, is primarily a plankton feeder, but will eat small shrimp and fish eggs. Occasionally they eat small fish, but these are only a minor item in their general diet.

The sexually mature fish enter the streams in spring or early summer when the river water has warmed to 50° to 55° F. Cooler water appears to interrupt the spawn. Consequently the shad run correspondingly later in the year passing from south to north along the coast, commencing in Georgia in January; in March in the waters tributary to Pamlico and Albemarle Sounds; in April in the Potomac; and in May and June in northern streams generally from Delaware to Canada.

In large rivers they run far upstream especially in the open rivers of the southeast. The apparent longest distance is in the St. Johns River of Florida, an extremely slow (1″ drop per mile) river that widens into large lakes; shad have been found 375 miles upriver.

The fish select sandy or pebbly shallows for spawning grounds, and deposit their eggs mostly between sundown and midnight. Females produce about 30,000 eggs on average; though as many as 156,000 have been estimated in very large fish. The spent fish, now very emaciated, begin their return journey to the sea immediately after spawning.

The eggs are transparent, pale pink or amber, and being semi-buoyant and not sticky like those of other river herrings, they roll about on the bottom with the current. The eggs hatch in 12 to 15 days at 52° (12° C), in 6 to 8 days at 63° (17° C), which covers the range characteristic of Maine and Bay of Fundy rivers during the season of incubation.

The larvae are about .35 to .39 in (9 to 10 mm). long. The young shad remain in the rivers until fall, when they move down to salt water; by this time, they are to 1.5 to 4.5 inches long, resembling their parents in appearance.

Nutritional information

Like most herring, shad are very high in omega 3, and in particular contain nearly twice as much per unit weight as wild salmon. They are also very low in toxins like PCBs, dioxins, and mercury by EPA standards.

Shad population

There has been a problem with declines in the shad population as early as the turn of the century. Many of the rivers where it was common now suffer from pollution; however, in some cases, the short length of time spent by shad in fresh water may minimize contamination. Shad are taken from the Hudson River and eaten, as scientists have found that they are not in the river long enough to be affected by PCBs and other contaminants.

Such pollution, however, may damage the spawn, and studies have been undertaken to determine whether fingerlings suffer DNA damage. Some of the rivers in which the shad spawns have dams on them, eliminating much of the spawning grounds; in recent years, several small dams have been destroyed for just this reason. Pollutants, even if not harmful per se, may encourage the growth of unfriendly water fauna. And finally, shad have simply been overfished.

Even more important to the decline of the shad is the damming of the rivers and streams in which they spawn, as pregnant doe shad are quite heavy and do not jump even when hooked. As noted above, the number of shad caught in the Merrimack River declined from almost 900,000 in 1789 to 0 in 1888, due to the fishes’ inability to reach their spawning ground.

Shad serve a peculiar symbolic role in Virginia state politics. On the year of every gubernatorial election, would-be candidates, lobbyists, campaign workers, and reporters gather in the town of Wakefield, Virginia for Shad Planking.

Shad fishing

Shad are also valued as a sport fish that exhibit complex and little-understood feeding behavior while spawning. Unlike salmon, shad retain the ability digest and assimilate food during the anadromous migration. Like other fish, their feeding instinct can be triggered by a variety of factors such as turbidity and water temperature. Anglers use both spinning and fly fishing tackle to pursue shad. In the north, April through June is when shad spawn in coastal rivers and estuaries.



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