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Nature's Bounty American Shad

Spring temperatures bring migratory fish like shad and herring up the James River to spawn. An extraordinarily warm start to 2012 meant soaring water temperatures and had us speculating that fish spawning activity would come early. It is as hard to overestimate the importance of the shad to early Americans as it is to exaggerate the excitement at the prospect of shad season among a certain sect of fishermen. (See John McPhee’s excellent book on the subject). So, in the last full weekend of March, we joined a growing contingent on the water and riverbanks to enact a spring rite that goes back thousands of years on the James, we went shad fishing! Here are some scenes from the James this spring ― just another season of loving America’s Founding River.

Boats of all kinds can be seen on the James near the fall line during the shad run. The rain clouds in the background and many more like them upriver have since caused a flood that will shut down the shad fishing for a few
No, this is not a snag. Though very rarely exceeding 5 lbs., shad are incredibly strong fish. Their migrations of many thousands of miles take them as far north as the Bay of Fundy several times in their lifespan.
American Shad like this must be immediately released. More on this great fish in JRA’s archived article.
One of the busiest stretches of interstate in the country, I-95, is part of the scenery during the shad run.

The largest member of the herring family is as American as apple pie. The American shad, in its legendary historic abundance and amazing endurance, has long since swum its way into our culture and hearts to stay. Shad returning to Virginia in March meant the end of winter hunger for indigenous people, colonists, and early Americans.  So consistent and important was this fishery that the serviceberry tree came to be called the shad bush, as it reliably served notice of the shad run with its white blossoms each spring.

In the face of the devastations of dams, overfishing, and polluted waters, shad have persisted in faithfully returning to their home river to spawn. We now know that shad migrate each summer as far as the Bay of Fundy following ideal water temperatures and tasty zooplankton. Indeed, one shad may swim 12,000 miles over an average lifespan. 

As wintering flocks of waterfowl depart, American shad are preparing to make their celebrated run into the James. Having stored fat reserves that hopefully will carry them to their spawning waters and back to the sea, shad swim upriver and begin to spawn when the water reaches 55o F.  An individual female will release 30,000 to 600,000 eggs to be fertilized by milt broadcast by males. Fertilized eggs will hatch in 7 to 10 days and the larval fish will begin growing and working their way into near-shore wintering areas. Young shad are an important food source for larger predator fish, such as rockfish. Birds such as heron time their nesting to give their growing brood may the advantage of the tremendous inland influx of protein represented by the shad run. Being such a critical prey item isn’t good for survival rates, and its incredibly long odds that a fertilized egg will become an adult fish. If they do survive, shad will live in the ocean three to five years before making their first spawning run.

American shad sustain other wildlife species, commercial fisheries, and what has become a popular recreational fishery. Unfortunately, the shad population spawning in the James River is at only 6% of a healthy level (see JRA’s State of the James Report, Pdf).  The latest decline is not fully understood, and we need more research and better protection if we are to continue to benefit from this species in the future. For all that shad have given us, we owe them this much in return.


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For More Information, Contact:

Gabe Silver

James River Association

9 South 12th Street, 4th Floor

Richmond, VA 23219

Phone: 894-788-8811

[email protected]

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