Shad run is strong this year

While still way down from its historic high, the Delaware's most famous fish is slowly coming back

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  • Shad swimming in the Delaware (Photo: Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River)

  • Fishing on the Delaware last weekend (Photo by Heather Adams)

  • A shad dart, like the one pictured, is used to fish for shad. (Photo by Heather Adams)

Where to watch the migration

Don Hamilton of the Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River says whether you’re fishing for American shad, or observing them on a float trip or from a bridge deck, take a moment to marvel at these intrepid travelers, and welcome them back home to the Delaware after their 12,000-mile journey. Look for fish about 20 inches long, and gray against the darker riverbed background, moving upstream. Here are some good viewing spots:
The pedestrian walkways on the Matamoras, Pa./Port Jervis, N.Y. (Route 6/209) Bridge
The Damascus, Pa./Cochecton, N.Y. (Route 371/114) Bridge
The Callicoon Bridge

By Heather Adams

— Schools of American shad are making their way up the Delaware River for their annual spawn, with reports from downstream saying it's a strong run this year.

The middle Delaware appears to be in-between schools, with another group now making its way upstream.

Ted Metzger of Pike County Outfitters said the run has been steady, with catches starting to improve. Anglers averaged about one shad each last Saturday, he said.

Historically, the river has seen much larger numbers. Shad catches in the 19th century numbered in the millions. An early shad run is even rumored to have saved George Washington's soldiers at Valley Forge in 1778.

But in the 19th and 20th centuries, overfishing, dam building, and river pollution decimated the American shad. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, commercial shad fishing reached its peak in the 1880s, with 17.5 million pounds caught on average annually. But in the early 20th century, dams for hydroelectric power halted the shad migration in Pennsylvania, and the pollution caused by increased development hindered early efforts in stocking and creating fish passageways. According to the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association, commercial landings of the once-valuable shad have declined 98 percent from historic levels.

However, continued restoration of the river habitat through dam removal, pollution control, and hatchery programs in several watersheds are aiding a return of this founding fish.

Shad are anadromous fish. They spend the bulk of their adult lives in the ocean. But they hatch in freshwater and at three to six years of age return there to spawn. In our area, shad will return to spawn one to three times during the course of their lives.

The male bucks averages two to four pounds. The female roes are larger, at four to six pounds. The largest recorded Shad was nine pounds, nine ounces, caught in Pike County in 1986.

A female releases 100,000 to 600,000 eggs, which are fertilized by several fish. The young fry spend the summer in freshwater, and are food for the smallmouth bass and walleye, serving a vital role in our river ecosystems before they head back downstream to the ocean in the fall.

One shad fest goes, another grows

Down by Easton, Pa., the Forks of the Delaware Shad Fishing Tournament was cancelled indefinitely after 31 years this year because of the lack of registrations and sponsorships. After peaking with more than 1,000 anglers, they received just over 200 registrations the last few years. Organizers attribute this to the downturn in the economy. Many fisherman instead headed for the nearby, fourth annual Bi-state Shad Fishing Contest, which, according to their website, was a great success, extending to four days instead of the previous one day because of the increased interest. The largest Shad caught weighed in at nearly six pounds, caught by first prize winner Tom Mammano of Easton.

Locally, there used to be a festival at Shay's landing. Metzger remembers it being so popular, you could "hardly get a boat in there."

Although the shad are not running in the numbers they did in the 1970s and 1980s, downstream catches indicate they're recovering. While shad tend to return to where they hatched to spawn again, they require water temperatures of 62 to 67 degrees, which usually happen when the dogwood and shadbushes bloom (the latter is also known as Juneberry because of the berries that develop in June).

With the dogwood and shadbush in full bloom, now's the time to catch the end of the run, as the schools head farther upstream to Hancock spawning ground.

The shad run in deep channels, although they do tend to cut corners at river bends. Metzger recommends the green chartreuse shad dart for catching this challenging fish.

Sport fishermen can call the Delaware River Shad Association's hotline for up-to-date information on fishing conditions at 610-954-0577.

Online: The Delaware River Shad Fisherman's Association offers recipes for cooking the notoriously bony shad, including the famous and traditional "plank shad" receipe, at

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