Roe, Roe, Roe Your Boat!

Shad serves as a harbinger of spring

Robert Clark

The shad are running! Like vining Carolina jessamine or flowering dogwood trees, the spawning run of American shad — and its shad roe — herald early spring.

The American shad (genus: Alosa sapidissima) is the largest member of the herring family. Of the world’s 31 species, it is the most delicious, as reflected in its Latin name sapidissima, which roughly means, “savory” or “best to eat.”

The silvery fish is characterized by a blue-green iridescence over its back and dark spots near the gill flap extending toward the tail. Its average length is 24 inches; weight, 4 to 7 pounds. Native to the Eastern Seaboard, American shad are anadromous like salmon and striped bass. Born in fresh water, they return to the ocean where they live five or six years. To spawn (reproduce), they follow olfactory markers to migrate back to the natal freshwater rivers where they hatched.

Spawning takes place in the river systems of every coastal state north of Florida’s St. Johns River and in the Bay of Fundy on Canada’s East Coast. According to scientists, the shad stock of each river is genetically unique.

Shad are pelagic fish, built for long-distance migration. They can swim 12,000 miles in a lifetime, following coastal ocean waters and ascending inland rivers. Shad detect ultrasonic signals at frequencies higher than the upper audible limit of human hearing. In their perilous life journey, this ability helps them avoid predators and forage for food.

In the South Atlantic coastal waters, including South Carolina, semelparous shad die after their first exhaustive, spawning run. Moving northward from the Cape Hatteras area, shad are iteroparous and survive to spawn additional seasons.

For some shad roe aficionados, who eagerly await their first spring taste, the fish provides merely the delivery system. Charlestonians appreciate this ephemeral delicacy as much as the Colonials did 200 years ago. Wrapped in bacon, and roasted or sauteed, the roe is a seasonal breakfast favorite. It is on many restaurant menus throughout the Lowcountry and has fans in the Midlands, too.

The “hen” female shad is larger than the “buck” male and can spawn up to 600 thousand eggs in a season. The crescent-shaped, translucent egg sacs come in a set of two. The roe color depends on what the shad was eating; carotenoid-rich zooplankton can create reddish, orange, or yellow hues. Before cooking, the appearance can be a bit off-putting, and the uninitiated use vivid descriptors like brains, liver, placenta, or lungs. When prepared, the roe vaguely resemble two savory, browned sausages that are lightly scored.

The transparent eggs have the savory richness of foie gras and yield microbursts of salty flavor with a subtle hint of the sea. The fine, grainy texture is reminiscent of quinoa, couscous, or even grits. Shad roe is high in protein; minerals; vitamins A, D, and K; and omega-3 fats. It is also high in LDL cholesterol; most of the fat is unsaturated.

Many people are not familiar with shad roe or even the life history of the American shad. Knowledge of the country’s erstwhile reliance on this stalwart fish lies somewhere between living memory and history’s buried past. The shad’s steadfast journey in navigating American history can be better appreciated by knowing more of its back story. It is also a reminder of the importance of seasonality and traditions.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee calls the resilient shad America’s “founding fish” because it was of immense economic importance to this country. Its ancient migration ritual made it a valuable commodity for sustaining Native Americans along the Eastern Seaboard and helped establish European colonization.

The Colonists learned about native fishing methods: fish weirs, haul seining, bows and arrows, and natural poisons. Lit torches and spears were used in tandem at night to mesmerize the fish and then catch them by spear or by hand.

Seventeenth century waterways were congested with a great silvery flood of shad fighting their way upstream. Capt. John Smith mentions shad when writing about the Chesapeake Bay in 1608. English writer William Strachey reported from the Potomac in 1612, “Shad, a great store, of a yard long of shad and for sweetness and fatness a reasonable fish food.”    

In 1787, South Carolinians felt shad was worth fighting over. They determined their rights as citizens were trampled because this “necessity of life” was cut off by dam construction to build sawmills. Food supply was as important as independence! Petitioners from the Edisto River area helped bring about a law in South Carolina to keep the waterways open.

Colonial farmers would retire their plows to go fishing during the season. Shad was so plentiful at times that it was considered too “common” to be fed to polite society. George Washington, an avid shad fisherman, owned a profitable shad fishery on the Potomac River. In the 1830s, Potomac catches numbered around 22 million fish annually. Fishermen snared thousands in a single seine net.

Shad appeared regularly on Thomas Jefferson’s spring menus; a favorite dish was shad roe soufflé. He ordered barrels of salted shad for the winter months.

In 1871, thousands of young American shad fry made it all the way to California’s Sacramento River, not swimming, but comfortably riding on the new Transcontinental Railroad. New Yorker Seth Green, the father of American fish culture, transported them under the auspices of the California Fisheries Commission. Within three years, their offspring jam-packed major rivers and deltas of the Pacific Coast. Supplies of fresh, frozen, and canned shad were soon being shipped back east to supplement declining supplies.

American shad once supported large commercial fisheries along the Atlantic Coast. The great shad runs of earlier centuries were seriously diminished by the early 1980s. Fisheries were in decline and moratoriums were issued on shad harvests. A decade later, spawning runs were so low, biologists feared shad might warrant endangered species protection. By 2007, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission announced that coastal shad were at an all-time low.

Primary causes for stock decline included overfishing, the destruction of spawning grounds, degraded water quality, and dam construction — still a problem in 19th century. In 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the loss of New England shad habitats and the iniquities of dam construction: “… armed only with innocence and just cause … keep a stiff fin then, and stem all the tides thou mayst meet.”

To improve the situation, individual states began removing obsolete dams that impeded upstream migration and increased hatchery stocking programs to put fry back into the rivers. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes opened successful shad hatcheries and marine science facilities on rivers in Virginia that bear their names. The fortune of the American shad was clearly rising, although shad fishing still is not allowed in some states since shad numbers are so low.

The first wave of American shad arrives in South Carolina’s Lowcountry early February continuing through April. Peak spawning season is March and April. The buck shad arrive first; the females soon follow. Water temperature and flow are the driving forces behind shad migration. When the water temperature is 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the fish arrive. This year they were early and appeared mid-January.

Fortunately, an abundance of American shad is present in the Santee River Basin. Hatchery expansions, genetic monitoring, and permanent upstream fish passage technologies are insuring future fish populations. American shad are now protected under the Anadromous Fish Conservation Act.

Fish friendly locks at the Pinopolis and St. Stephen dams have bypass systems allowing shad, blueback herring, and other migratory fish safe passage over the dams to Lakes Moultrie and Marion and the Congaree and Wateree rivers outside Columbia. At the St. Stephen’s vertical lift, hundreds of thousands of fish swim along underwater viewing windows observed by visitors and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists who monitor their passage. Some of the highest shad numbers on the Atlantic travel through this lock. Brood stock samples augment natural populations producing up to three million fish yearly.

In his book, The Domesticated Trout, Dr. Livingston Stone, a fish culture pioneer, called shad “nature’s pin-cushion for bones.” Tongue-in-cheek, he wrote that eating shad had been “reduced to a science” in Brooklyn boardinghouses. Wearing his poorest clothes, the boarder comes into the dining room “armed with a magnifying glass, a toothpick, a small basket for the bones, and a pair of tweezers. When he swallows a bone, all he has to do is take the pair of tweezers and pull it out. After one learns this art, it is simple, and so graceful.”

The notorious boniness of shad is further illustrated in a charming origin story from Atlantic Coast tribes. A sulky porcupine was chased into the river, and a spirit deity turned him inside out to become the first shad. The Algonquin name for shad is tatamaho or “inside-out porcupine.”

Shad meat is often less prized than the roe. What a shame because it has an almost buttery-rich texture and sweet flavor similar to fine, fresh sardines. The problem is that the complicated bone structure requires the dexterity of special boning skills that are nearly a lost art. This “porcupine of the sea” is estimated to have 800 bones with three sets of Y-shape (intramuscular) pin bones.

Online videos explain the boning process. Never mind perfection; ragged strips of shad fingers taste as good as trimmed fillets. Hen shad are plump with marbling and larger, fewer bones. Shad meat cooks to a creamy color; bleeding out freshly caught fish makes it lighter.

To preserve shad and soften the bones for consumption, experienced cooks have devised methods such as salting, pickling, and canning. A cleaned shad can be wrapped in foil and baked at 200 F for four to five hours. The bones soften like canned salmon bones, but the meat’s taste and texture resemble canned fish. The Instant Pot might provide another solution.

When eating shad, the skill of “picking and spitting” bones is highly effective. Other devotees eat shad — bones and all — wrapped up in soft, sliced bread. As bones pass the throat region, the bread eases them along. Not as agile as tweezers, but still somewhat effective!

Labeled “the Rodney Dangerfield of fish,” the American shad does not always receive much deference. Its decline in past decades has reduced the awareness of this storied fish. Many fisherfolk only follow the shad to locate largemouth bass. But fishing for shad —“the poor man’s tarpon” — is an adventure for anglers of all ages. From drift-boats or the bank, they cast spincasting rods and reels into schools of shad moving upstream. Recreational anglers enjoy the swimming strength and fighting spirit of these feisty fish, which engage in tugs-of-war when hooked on tackle. They are said to be good fighters because of their bone structure. But don’t yank too hard; the delicate mouth of a shad can tear. Occasionally, the sporty fish becomes acrobatic, entertaining anglers with leaps or summersaults in the air.

The river comes alive at night with spawning activities, but Lowcountry fishing guide Rob Bennett calls shad the “9-to-5-fish,” explaining, “They prefer to bite when the sun is up.” Shad rarely eat on spawning runs, but experienced anglers suggest they strike instinctively at lures.

For those in the know, the real catch is the shad roe. This delicacy is prepared numerous ways, but a shoreline brunch of pan-fried shad roe and eggs is the Holy Grail of shad fishing.

Edna Lewis, the legendary Southern chef who presided over the Middleton Place kitchens in the 1980s, reminisced about shad for breakfast in The Taste of Country Cooking. “Spring would bring our first and just about only fish, shad … Soaked in saltwater for an hour or so, rolled in seasoned cornmeal and fried carefully in home-rendered lard with a slice of smoked shoulder for added flavor.”

Shad is well suited to many cooking methods including drying and smoking. Planked shad is an East Coast specialty adopted from Eastern Seaboard Native tribes.

In 1896, Good Housekeeping wrote, “The modern way of cooking shad roe is generally the cooking of vandals … shad roe is a culinary dream, and this is how to catch the dream.” The culinary publication would have approved of the following method.

Rinse separated egg sacs under cool water; dust with flour. Saute in bacon fat or butter on medium heat 6 to 7 minutes or until golden brown, lightly crispy, and slightly pink inside. Make a pan sauce with the drippings and ingredients like shallots, garlic, mushrooms, Madeira, and parsley. Lemon juice and capers cut the richness. Spoon sauce over roe; add crisp bacon and lemon wedges. Serve with stoneground grits and a local, hard cider for a taste of Americana.

Use leftover poached roe in countless dishes, such as scrambled eggs, omelets, kedgeree, chowder, hushpuppies, and pasta. For excellent recipes such as Broiled Shad with Shad Roe Mousse and Shad Roe Spread, read The Lee Bros. Charleston Cookbook (Clarkson Potter).

Here are some seasoned tips for shad roe:

Many cooks soak roe in cold, salted water or buttermilk several hours to diminish blood and veining and to “sweeten” the flavor.

Pricking egg sac membranes before frying or roasting prevents bursting.

Cook roe by the sous vide method or poached in heavy cream, court bouillon, or cider 8 to 10 minutes.

Be careful adding salt; roe is already salty.

Use a well-seasoned, solid cast iron skillet (with glass lid).

A mesh cover also prevents splattering of popping roe.

Fresh roe is best, but it can be frozen.

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