Almost anyone who watches television has seen pictures of frenetic spawning runs of salmon in the rivers of Alaska and parts of states in the Pacific Northwest. Similar runs of Atlantic salmon are a storied part of life in the British Isles. Wherever they occur, they are crucial to the food supply of humans, bears and various birds.
The same sort of spawning migrations happen in the Southeast, less known and photographed, but a significant food source for eons. Many species of fish surge up rivers with outlets to the sea to their established spawning areas in shallower waters of tributaries.
Like the Native Americans before them, settlers along the Atlantic seaboard took sustenance from these abundant annual visitors. The herring run on rivers in North Carolina, Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay were prodigious. Unimpressive in looks and size, these fish fed people fresh from the nets and later after being smoked, salted or pickled in brine.
Rivers in Georgia and South Carolina were spawning thoroughfares for striped bass (AKA rock fish), much larger, sleeker and faster than herring. Often taken on reel and rod, their numbers shrank dramatically after major rivers were dammed, cutting off access to spawning grounds. Generally, the dams do not have fish ladders to help fish ascend as is the case with some along salmon run rivers. Some can still be found in spillway pools at the bases of dams during spawning season. In a few cases, striped bass captured in large man-made lakes have adapted to existence outside of salt water, maturing in the lakes and spawning in small streams at their headwaters. Their numbers are not well documented, but anglers fish for them and revel in their fight when hooked.
Georgia’s most abundant of species of fish that migrate to spawn is shad. There are others. I have seen mullet jumping out of the water on their way upstream in the Altamaha, but other mullet might spawn in the marsh or lower parts of coastal rivers. Although their numbers now are but a shadow of the abundance of the past, shad have through the ages filled Georgia rivers from mid-January into early March.
The shad run was important to common folks and some not so common. Fish were central to the diet of most people in the rural South, second only to various forms of hog meat. Through much of the year, fish could be caught in local streams, but fall signaled the end of that season for a number of reasons, including the fact that they just did not feed aggressively after the water turned cold. The shad run “broke the drought” on fish availability. It is true that few people caught shad because special knowledge and equipment were required. However, those who did catch shad were short-term commercial fishermen who sold their catch to friends and neighbors.
Local shad fishermen used drift nets deployed in the main current of a river. Traditional nets set along stream banks did not work because the shad were single-minded in their voyage upstream. Working in the middle of a river required a sturdy boat and a motor. It is possible for two people to fish this way — a strong paddler and a net man — but in near-freezing to freezing weather, a reliable motor is strongly preferred. In time, drift nets became illegal, so shad fishermen worked at night. Brrr! Shad can be caught on reel and rod on a shiny lure trolled behind a good boat and motor, but fishing in those conditions is more “fun” than most people want to enjoy.
No one ever knew how far upstream shad went to spawn. They were caught on tributaries of the big rivers as well as those streams themselves. They were netted on the Ohoopee until about 1970. A nephew trolled for and caught them far up the Ogeechee until 2002. Since there are no dams on the Altamaha or its principal tributaries, the Oconee and the Ocmulgee, until middle Georgia, there are still some shad in that system. However, because of dams, overfishing in the past, problems with water quality and other environmental issues, shad population has fallen dramatically. They are not gone, but they are getting scarce.
To tell the truth, shad were never a culinary delight for everyone. They have a definite “fishy” taste, as oily as bluefish or mackerel. Bucks (males) are less desirable. Even those who like these fish prefer the roe-shad (females) mainly because the roe, prepared as a side dish, tastes good to just about everybody.
Now shad eaters are about as rare as the shad themselves. Only a minority — most of them old — of the folks from South Georgia have ever eaten shad, picking the meat from the many bones, mixing in some roe and grits and washing it all down with sweet tea. My late Lady Annette would tell all who missed out on the experience, “You just don’t know what you are
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.