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Season opens for ‘poor man’s salmon,’ which helped Washington beat the Brits

By David Pendered

The commercial season has opened in two Georgia rivers for a fish once known as the poor man’s salmon, a herring that some revere for its role in preventing George Washington’s troops from dying of starvation as they camped near Valley Forge.

The Continental Army survived the winter of 1777-1778 because a supply of dried shad was available. Native Americans had taught the early settlers how to harvest shad during the annual spring spawning runs and dry it to preserve the fish for later consumption, according to a report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Even today, shad festivals are a rite of spring along the estuaries of North Carolina and other Mid-Atlantic states. These folks remember that the Latin name for the species, sapidissima, means “most savory” or most “delicious,” according to the FWS.

For the most part, though, shad is one of those species that has fallen from favor among consumers.

Publix doesn’t carry it; Your DeKalb Farmer’s Market doesn’t list it on the website; Bralow’s Fresh Fish & Seafood, a specialty fish house in Philadelphia, lists it in a way that suggests it’s available in spring, and is a costly treat:

  • “[R]emoving the bones requires skilled fish cutters making boneless shad fillets moderately costly.  Shad Roe (fish eggs) have a delicate texture and are considered a delicacy.”

Thus, shad are in transition. Once so plentiful that farmers used them as fertilizer in fields, according to the FWS, shad now are “moderately costly” and their eggs are a “delicacy.”

The prices result from the plethora of bones in shad that are difficult to remove.

Unlike salmon bones, which are edible and even desired as a calcium source, shad bones are edible only if they’ve been softened in a pressure cooker, according to one chef who specializes in wild-caught foods.

Former restaurant chef and political reporter Hank Shaw offers a whimsical description of shad as food. Shaw won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Food Blog in 2013 and says he is, “especially interested in those meats and veggies that people don’t eat much any more, like pigeons or shad or cardoons.” Here’s what Shaw wrote:

  • “The skill to debone a shad was once a given among fish mongers and good shad anglers. But it is now a lost art….
  • “A shad is so bony there is an old Micmac Indian myth that tells of an unhappy porcupine, who, sad about his lot in life, asked the Great God Manitou to help him. Manitou must have one helluva sense of humor, because he turned the porcupine inside out, changed him into a fish, cast him into the river and named him shad. Nice god, eh?”

The commercial season for shad arrived in Georgia on Jan. 1 and runs through midnight, March 31.

Some states ban the harvest of shad because their stock has been depleted. But quantities in Georgia are sufficient to allow limited commercial fishing.

Georgia has opened to commercial harvest portions of the Altamaha and Savannah rivers. Details are in a report issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Among the restrictions imposed by the state are requirements that sturgeon, catfish and game fish other than American shad or hickory shad be released unharmed into the waters where they were captured – meaning that the net has to be cleared before the fishermen take it off the river. In addition, nets must not block more than half a stream width so that the fish can travel unimpeded along the other half.


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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