At the very moment you are reading this article, hundreds of thousands of American shad are gathering in the salt water at the mouth of the Connecticut River waiting to complete their journey home. They wait in large schools, conserving energy, until the freshwater of the Connecticut River turns 40 degrees. And when it does, the fish will complete their journey to spawn and, in many cases, die. Then, they will become a native shoreline delicacy, soon to be served at a restaurant near you.
Nearly everything about this fish is remarkable and extreme. Although they weigh only between three and five pounds (the record is an 11+ pounder caught in the Connecticut River), the typical non-spawning shad swims over 2,000 miles each year with a range between the capes of Virginia and the Bay of Fundy.
Although the roe of the females is prized today as a delicacy, in decades and centuries past, the fish was more commonly associated with the local, common folk of the Connecticut Shoreline and River Valley. Native Americans were known to gather peacefully together near Joshua’s Rock along the river, a geographic marker most boaters recognize today, when the shadbush and forsythia bushes blossom, to fish each spring. In early records, shad was just as frequently referenced as a fish that graced the soil as fertilizer rather than the plates of New England settlers. A common nickname for the fish was Gillpork, a reference to the poverty of Gill, Massachusetts, whose residents ate shad instead of the more expensive salt pork. Building the Brockway Skiff, a wooden boat about 15 feet in length, specifically designed for shad fishing, was the career of Earl Brockway of Old Saybrook for much of the last century. The boat is used around the world today. Shad has always played an important seasonal role in the diets and economy of Connecticut locals, so much so that it was designated the Connecticut State Fish in 2003. That prominent role is celebrated in towns up and down the Connecticut River each year.
It is said that the oily shad fillet is an acquired taste, and if you have never experienced it, it is best to first try it at the Essex Shad Bake, held each year by the Essex Rotary Club. Not only are the fillets expertly smoked on oak planks around a fire, but they are professionally deboned, which is no easy task. There are about 1,300 tiny bones in an adult shad, and for the longest time, shad boning techniques were a closely guarded trade secret. Today, those bones are a significant contributor to the alarming decreased popularity of shad among younger generations. If shad catches your fancy, there are many other fascinating shad destinations to attend. To view a real Brockway Skiff, constructed by Earl himself, along with nearly everything else about this amazing fish, consider visiting the Haddam Shad Museum, open during shad season each spring.
Further upstream are the dilapidated remains of one of the last roadside shad stands, Spensor’s Shad Shack, on Route 154. If you would like to meet the Shad Queen, or attend a parade and fishing contest, make your way up to Windsor Shad Derby on the third Saturday in May. To see a shad without fishing for one, thousands are visible for free through the glass walls of the fish elevator along the Holyoke Dam in Holyoke, Massachusetts. With so much to do surrounding this remarkable fish, we can all be grateful that, like a good Yankee, the Connecticut River shad remember to return to their native land to raise their kids.
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