The true American shad was an Atlantic fish that swam up freshwater rivers to spawn at which time massive quantities were caught for the tables of the eastern states. They were not found in rivers that emptied into the Gulf of Mexico, yet there are accounts of shad runs in Lower Louisiana, now Alabama. There are several explanations, the primary one being that natives seen catching large quantities of fish were actually catching another species mistaken by white journalists for something, namely the American shad, they were familiar with. Unfortunately, due to loss of habitat through damming up streams where the fish spawned, their numbers have dwindled to only a fraction of what they once were. Yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, progress at work in the good ole U.S. of A.
Early records from Virginia and other areas describe shad as a tasty fish, one much sought after, and sometimes preserved, but in Alabama and other Southern states a shad is known as a worthless fish, one used only for bait. How do we explain this difference?
The shad is a fish well known, and eaten at the best tables, for the goodness of its taste…The shad is a Sea-fish, but ‘tis also found in Rivers into which it usually goes in the Beginning of the Spring. When it first comes out of the Sea, ‘tis lean, dry, and ill tasted; but after it has been in fresh water for some time, it grows fat, plump, and savoury. – Lemery, Louis. A Treatise of all Sorts of Foods: both Animal and Vegetable. 1745. London.
It was known that, “the greater portion of the life of the Shad being spent in salt water”, returned to freshwater rivers only to spawn. The Southern bait fish referred to as shad lives out its entire life in fresh water, therefore, discounting all other explanations, that fact alone says these are much different fish.
The bait fish known in the South as shad is most likely the skipjack, “of very little value as a food-fish. In color it is brilliant blue above, sides silvery, with golden reflections, no dark spots behind opercle”.
The eastern or Atlantic shad is also, “bluish above, sides silvery white”, but with the addition of, “a dark spot behind opercle, and sometimes several along the line dividing the color of the back from that of the side. It reaches a length of two to two and a half feet, though the average weight is less than four pounds. It is found on our Atlantic coast from Florida to Newfoundland. The shad is an anadromous fish which passes most of its life in the sea, performing annual migrations from the ocean to the rivers for the sole purpose of reproduction. Its flesh is highly prized and there is great demand for this delicious food-fish”. – Biennial Report, Department of Game and Fish of the State of Alabama. 1908. Montgomery.
Shad. This is one of the best seasonable fishes that is to be found in our waters. It is a species of herring not common to the waters of Europe, though it is known there as well as here, by the scientific name of ‘Clupea Alosa’. It comes from the ocean, and visits us at New York, in an annual migration regularly in March or beginning of April, and disappears in June. It is highly prized by the people as an article of food, and during the run of shad, it is largely consumed in a fresh state, coming to market daily, fresh and good, as taken in the river by nets. It may be fried, broiled, or stuffed and roasted, or baked in an oven, but not a good fish to boil. During the remainder of the year, when fresh shad are out of season, the pickled or salted shad may be purchased; large quantities being taken and preserved in this way, in the rivers to the south and north of New York. The shadfish ascends the Hudson river and others to breed. It usually weighs from four to five pounds, but has been taken as heavy as twelve pounds. – Parkes, William, Mrs. Domestic Duties. 1829. New York.
The Creek Indians around Alabama and Georgia were reported as going to great lengths in the mid-18th century to catch shad, but in the 1880’s documentation abounds saying the eastern, Atlantic, or white shad was not found in any river emptying into the Gulf of Mexico except where introduced. The only explanation is that the fish caught by the natives were similar, but not the much esteemed shad. Since the only appreciable difference in appearance was the presence or absence of dark spots it would have been easy for early writers to mistakenly identify the fish. - Woodward, Thomas. Reminiscences. Published 1858.
Besides Virginia, states in which the shad was reportedly caught as a pan fish included Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Jersey, etc. The Bulletin this quote was taken from reported on attempts to introduce those fish to areas such as Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee etc., however, those attempts failed.
On July 11, 1876, 90,000 of the fish were placed in the Alabama River at Montgomery, and by “March 20, 1878. T. B. Doron, Montgomery, Ala., sends a four-pound shad, caught at Wetumpka, on Cossa River”. – U.S. Fish Comm. 1882.
The waters were somewhat muddied by Dr. Daniell who claimed that the eastern shad had been caught, preserved in alcohol, and sent to him as proof the fish did live in Southern waters, including the Alabama River [from near Elba], and Louisville, KY, [by 1860] and a judge reported he had eaten white shad taken in traps at the Falls of the Cahaba at Centreville, AL not later than 1848. – Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences. 1866. Philadelphia.
W. C. Daniell, M.D. wrote in a letter dated Jan. 9, 1860, that sometime prior he had introduced the eastern shad to Georgia and the Etowah River, one of the sources of the Alabama. “…shad were taken by railroad from Savannah to Montgomery, some four hundred miles…” – U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Report. 1874. Washington.
Those fish reportedly from 1848 were explained either as isolated incidences where a spawning fish lost its way and in the frenzy to spawn occasionally managed to migrate up those rivers, or, “by mistake on the part of those making the assertion”. Dr. Daniel’s mention of true eastern shad being introduced into Southern rivers was published from 1860 to 1866 meaning that efforts to naturalize the fish were made some time prior to 1860 and again in the 1880’s . It is possible the fish reportedly taken from the Alabama River was a straggler left from those first introduced. – Goode, George Brown. The Fishes and Fishery Industries of the United States.
The Bulletin from the Bureau of Fisheries, 1898, says that no true shad [as prized in other areas] is known to have swam Alabama waters. Supposed shad runs in the Black Warrior River near Tuscaloosa were described as “unimportant”, and inquiries made at Mobile failed to document shad in the Alabama River. It says, “No one of those interviewed had ever seen real shad in any of these rivers”. Shad supposedly found in Mobile were in fact, “not taken in large numbers”, but bait fish referred to as shad in Alabama were documented. – Bulletin of the Bureau of Fisheries. Vol. 17. 1898.
Should there be lingering doubt that these are two entirely different sorts of fish, let’s look at another publication by the U.S. government. “The shad of the Atlantic, a fish affording, from its gregarious and prolific nature, a valuable food for man, does not naturally exist in the Gulf of Mexico”. – Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission. Vol. I.
How then, do we explain the following passage?
The Indians claimed half of the river and in spring or shad-catching time the Indians would flock from all parts of the [Indian] nation in great numbers to the Ocmulgee. They could be seen at every shoal as high up the river as shad could run down to the Altamaha, for the purpose of fishing. – Thomas Woodward, Reminiscences. 1858.
In the Congressional Serial Set we find that crappie have also been known as shad in areas of the South, and there is a very good chance the crappie is what some erroneously called shad in Lower Louisiana, later Alabama. Crappie remains one of the finest fresh water fish found in Southern rivers and well lives up to the reputation afforded the eastern shad in early accounts. – U.S. Government Printing Office. 1904.
Crappie would certainly have been worth the amount of effort the Creeks put into catching and preserving fish.
Some species of bass, also quite edible, were referred to as crappie in the early accounts, and may have been called shad by whites who first moved into Lower Louisiana and other areas of the South.
Anyone who desires, may spend a great deal of time continuing to research the fish, but I feel confident the reader realizes the skipjack or bait fish is not what is being discussed in receipts for shad, so we’ll close with a look at some early receipts.
In earlier times, shad were “planked”, that is attached to a piece of plank which was then stood up around a fire until the fish was delicately baked, indoors or outdoors.
PLANKED SHAD. Have a hardwood board one and a half or two inches thick. Split the shad as for broiling, place it on the board with the skin side down, and fasten with a few tacks; place the board before the fire, and roast until done; rub it from time to time with a little butter. The plank should be well-seasoned, and be heated before placing the shad on it, or it will impart the flavor of the wood to the fish. – Ronald, Mary. The Century Cook Book. 1901. New York.
TO BROIL SHADS. The Whole Duty of a Woman. 1737. These fish are to be well scaled and cut: Afterwards having rubbed them with butter and salt broil them on a gridiron ’till they come to a fine colour: They are to be dished with sorrel and cream, adding parsley, chervil, chibbol, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and sweet butter. They may also be served up with a ragoo of mushrooms, or a brown sauce with capers.
TO BROIL A SHAD. Split and wash the shad, and afterwards dry it in a cloth. Season it with salt and pepper. Have ready a bed of clear bright coals. Grease your gridiron well, and as soon as it is hot lay the shad upon it, and broil it for about a quarter of an hour or more, according to the thickness. Butter it well, and send it to table. You may serve with it melted butter in a sauce-boat. – Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie’s Complete Cookery. 1853. Philadelphia.
BAKED SHAD. Split open the fish and stuff with a forcemeat made of its roe, some mushrooms, bread-crumbs, butter, parsley, thyme and bay leaf, chopped and thoroughly mixed together. Bind or sew up the fish and bake it in an earthenware dish well buttered for half an hour, basting with white stock to which has been added lemon juice, sherry, and onion. – Soyer’s Standard Cookery. 1912.