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Me and My Shad: 1920

Me and My Shad: 1920

Circa 1920. "Shad fishing on the Potomac." National Photo Co. View full size.


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Here on the Tennessee river, shad are used for cut bait on trot lines. You have to cut up a shad and get the pieces on the hooks as they don't "keep very well" in warm weather.

"Gluttonous Springtime Blowouts"

Here's a quote about shad bakes from

During the shad's Hudson River heyday, virtually every river town could boast at least one big annual shad bake—the Hudson's equivalent of the New England shore dinner. New Yorker essayist Joseph Mitchell, in his 1959 piece "The Rivermen," calls these bakes "gluttonous springtime blowouts" and remembered when huge bakes were given by churches, lodges, labor unions, and local politicians.

"The Rivermen" was a long essay for the New Yorker. It was later collected in Mitchell's "The Bottom of the Harbor," which itself was later collected in the masterpiece "Up in the Old Hotel."

Joseph Mitchell was from a small town in North Carolina; after graduating from college, he moved to New York, where he reported for several newspapers and eventually began writing for the The New Yorker in 1933. He worked there until his death in 1991, although he effectively stopped writing in 1964. Shorpyites who are fascinated by the old urban photos, especially of New York City, would likely be fascinated by Mitchell's writing.

Fish story

Shad fishing in the Hudson River remained a major seasonal activity until well into the 1950's: the rivermen would live on their boats/barges during the shad run. Some time earlier, large sturgeon were plentiful enough on the Lower Delaware that there was a town (Caviar) built around the harvesting of their roe. The Central Railroad of New Jersey had a freight line serving the town.
Not much left of that now.

Oh, waiter

The popularity of shad roe is illustrated in the Cole Porter song "Let's Do It" with the line "Why ask if shad do it? Waiter, bring me shad roe."

Blind to their Own Interests

Shad were once plentiful in the Potomac, Delaware and Hudson rivers. Overfishing and pollution were greatly reducing their numbers at the time of this photo. Due to efforts to stock the river with fry and roe, the population in the Potomac lasted a few years longer then those in the Delaware and Hudson. There is now an ongoing project to restore shad to the river.

On a culinary note, in addition to planked shad for dinner, newspapers of the time mention bacon-garnished shad roe as a popular breakfast treat. Of course making a delicacy of the thousands of eggs in each fish no doubt hastened their decline.

Additionally, please don't interpret the title of this post (Blind to their Own Interests, extracted from one of the following newspaper articles) as a condemnation of the hard-working fishermen of the time. Overfishing, as in many exploitations of shared resources, is due to the larger dilemma of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Washington Post, Dec 20, 1915

Driving Out Potomac Shad

Fish Will be Gone Says Commission,
if Greedy Catch Isn't Stopped

Unless protective measures are taken at once by the State of Maryland and Virginia there is a danger that the shad, the most valuable of the migratory river fishes of the Atlantic seaboard, will become unknown in Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River.

A real note of alarm in this respect was sounded in the annual report of the government bureau of fisheries, which was issued yesterday. Not only is it indicated that the fisheries laws of Maryland and Virginia should be amended, but the laws of all the Atlantic coast States as well.

"The bureau repeatedly has pointed out the shortsighted and destructive course pursued by some of the States with reference to this most important fish," the report said. "The most serious condition exists in the Chesapeake basin, where in 1915, the fishing was the poorest ever known, following a season that was the poorest in a generation. No limits are placed on the operations of the fishermen, who seem blind to their own interests. Every stream which the shad can try to ascend is literally choked with nets.

Washington Post, Nov 27, 1925

Fish Disappearing

Commissioner O'Malley, of the Bureau of Fisheries declares in his annual report that the country is at last awakening to the need of conservation if serious depletion of some of the most important American fisheries is to be checked. ...

A few years ago shad visited the waters of the Potomac in sufficient numbers to enable the proprietors of the resorts along the shores between Washington and Indian Head to offer a round trip ticket on their steamers with a "whole planked shad and a moonlight ride on the return," all for a dollar. In those happy days fishermen offered the choicest "roe shad " at the height of the season for "a levy," and itinerant peddler would bring one to your door, all dressed, for a quarter. Frequently when the fish were "runnin' strong" they were a drug on the market, to be had for carrying them away. Farmers along both shores of the river salted hundreds of barrels of shad and herring every spring, while "Potomac Robins," as the herring were known, were the staple food of most of the colored laboring class.

1914 Advertisement

Washington Post, Jul 22, 1926

Will The Shad Come Back?

Thousands of citizens not yet out of the "thirties" can remember when the fish peddler cried his wares through the streets of Washington early in the spring when a roe-shad big enough for a family dinner could be purchased for a "quarter." But there has been a gradual falling off in the catch every year for more than a decade and last May, in the height of the season, the haughty fishmonger scorned the dollar proffered for an insignificant "buck."

The United States fish commissions has carried on restocking operations in the Potomac during the past nine or ten years. This season the number of fry turned into the river at the hatchery opposite Mount Vernon was the smallest in years. There were 10,000,000 fingerlings released from the hatchery. In some years the number has reached 80,000,000 and the commissioner is still hopeful that results will be shown in the returns from the seine haulers.

The falling off in the number of shad caught in Northern waters can only be explained by the growth of cities on the banks of the rivers and the erection of all sorts of manufacturing plants along the shores which have resulted in the pollution of the waters and killed off young fish by the millions. ...

Bad shad

I've always thought of shad as a trash fish. Were they considered more desirable in 1920 or is there something I don't know about them?

[Planked shad was practically a religion in this part of the country. And shad roe is considered a delicacy by many. - Dave]

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