Net Loss: Shad Swim Against the Tide of Time

It’s true that I had previously launched my career in the restaurant business, working in a hotel kitchen with aspirations — Stowe, Vermont, 1974. Aspirations, though, were one thing and reality was something else. Take seafood. Scallops arrived once a week from Boston (if the roads were clear), quick frozen, often wearing opaque lines of freezer burn around their edges. Recipe: Dump into large pot of fish velouté; reduce all afternoon until the scallop bits break apart into the cream base. Add a few handfuls of baby shrimp (frozen), two bunches of chopped limp parsley (curly), maybe some cod from last week, then spoon it all into ready-to-bake puff pastry shells, give a shake of paprika for garnish, et voilà, a classic Continental seafood appetizer. The tempo suited me. I was 17.

But it wasn’t until April, after snowmelt ended the ski season and I returned to my native Bergen County to work the spring shad season on the Hudson River, that I discovered my deep passion for all the living edible species in the natural world (aka food) by joining the crew of Ron Ingold and Charlie Smith, the last stake-net shad fishermen on the Hudson River and probably the world.

Shad, the largest member of the herring family, are anadromous — meaning that, like salmon, they live their adult lives in the ocean before returning to the freshwater place of their birth to spawn. As the Atlantic coastal waters slowly warm each March, since long before these rivers had names, spring “shad runs” head up the East Coast estuaries from the St. John’s River in Florida all the way to the St. John’s River in Maine.

Henry Hudson saw them in vast numbers when he sailed along the Palisades 400 years ago. Native Americans fished them, calling them “porcupines turned inside out” because their myriad bones splinter like bad split ends, defying normal filleting techniques. Colonists in Philadelphia and New Amsterdam depended on shad as a staple protein, and some historians believe our young republic would have collapsed from starvation were it not for their annual abundance, many weeks ahead of spring’s first cultivated food.

My job, as the least experienced man in the crew, was to pick shad from our nets as we pulled our way across the row. There I was, in the bilges of a 24-foot square-ended scow, wearing rubber boots and Helly Hansen “skins,” completely aslosh in fish slime, iridescent scales, bloodied river water and, as the pick progressed, increasingly cuddled by hundreds and hundreds of dead and dying shad. I had never imagined anything more energizing and life affirming than witnessing shad’s cyclical return to the estuary Hudson, against the mass and height of Manhattan to my back.

In the early 20th century, as many as 4,000 rows of nets extended into the Hudson, each a staked claim on this “limitless” protein source. Most of these fishermen were drift netters working the slack tides of the mid-Hudson: Ossining, Tarrytown, Piermont, Newburgh, Stony Point, Verplanck and Beacon. They persisted longer than downriver stake netters, but last year barely a dozen guys were still pulling shad nets and those few were all above the Bear Mountain Bridge in Poughkeepsie, Hudson and Kingston. The decline is a result of many forces: overfishing and habitat destruction, but also changing culinary tastes, shifting skill sets in the labor pool and new sources of “cheap” protein.

But in 1974 I was downriver in Edgewater, directly across from 158th Street, living on a barge that Charlie bought for a dollar from Penn Central Railroad back when the nation cast off its local infrastructure in favor of “more efficient” air travel. The barge sat on tidal mud near Von Dolen’s marina, dragged there years earlier. Between the floorboards I could still find coffee beans that had fallen out of burlap bags, decades-old evidence of many prior hauls up and down the Hudson.

In this lower section of the river, the tides are too strong for drift netting. Instead, we drove a row of poles into the mud stretching out from a hundred yards or so offshore into the middle of the river. Charlie’s row was opposite the elevated section of Riverside Drive, where Fairway is now; Ronnie’s was just north of the George Washington Bridge off Ross Dock in Englewood.

Poles were cut from hickory and white oaks, trees selected for their even-tapered straight runs and never shorter than 60 feet. They could have been masts of a ship. At the end of each season, the crew dragged the poles up onto the tidal mudflats just south of the barge to await next year’s season. Benefiting from the preservative qualities of the Hudson’s silty, salty brine, they didn’t rot, and most were over 25 years old. New poles were expensive, so Ronnie and Charlie bought out retiring shadders, accumulating a library of old poles, some cut 75 years ago and floated down from Beacon during shad’s heyday when rows were spaced 1,000 feet apart from Manhattan to Ossining.

We set the poles in early April using a floating derrick moored beside our semi-dry-dock barge, driving them deep into 20 or 30 feet of Hudson muck. A pair of squawking monk parrots nested in the derrick, but that’s another story.

Once the row poles were driven in, we could set the nets downstream of the poles at the end of low tide as the last of the slack waters left the estuary and the current emptied into the ocean. When the tide turned and the river ran upstream, the net would gently sink, collecting shad as they caught a ride on the flood tide, heading home to the main stem of the Hudson between Rhinecliff and the Troy dam, though some would make it over the locks and into the Mohawk. We would lift at high tide, always a tricky proposition, since the tide turns sooner along inshore eddies and later in mid-river. Onshore winds, the lunar cycle and variations in fresh water runoff altered the exact timing of the turn.

Two men would lift the net; one pulled up the weighted bottom “ring” line, the other took the “top” line, helping to keep the pockets intact. That would be Charlie “Chollie” Smith and his first mate, Hugo, German merchant marine and Edgewater wino. Hugo had his own private cabin on the barge, for reasons I didn’t understand though I surmised it had something to do with his odor. To this boy not yet fond of showering, it was kind of sweet: a mixture of tobacco and sweat, developing a layered complexity over many days, maybe even weeks or months. Hugo sported a gray beard with a small blond section just under his left lower lip. Only later did I realize the blond was attributable to tobacco spittle stains.

“Buttas are betta than bunkas for bass,” he would always say as he peered into the rising nets, assessing the haul. Hugo was talking about butterfish being better striped bass bait than mossbunkers or menhaden, which were relegated to fish meal. Along with shad, every lift pulled in other denizens of the estuary: striped bass, herring, fluke, Atlantic sturgeon, short-nosed sturgeon, windowpane, white perch, catfish, spiny dogfish, seahorses, weakfish, blackfish, spearing, monk, winter flounder, sea robins, scup, bluefish, the occasional hooked eel slithering by, and hundreds of silvery anchovies, or, as Hugo called them, “anchofish.” Today this would all be called “bycatch,” eco-jargon for unintended victims of a lift and a critical factor when evaluating the sustainability of a fishery. For me, it was a wondrous display of the vitality, diversity and truth of what thrived below the placid river surface beneath civilization’s triumphant span, the George Washington Bridge.

Hugo was old and often drunk but he was strong and knew how to read the river. Together he and Charlie would lift the net and drop it into the boat for my buddy Chris Letts and me to pick. The shad, still swimming upstream, would ram themselves into the net, get gilled and suffocate. Our job was to quickly unlatch them from the net and push them behind us, making room for more fish. I loved the repetitive action. How quickly and efficiently could I unlatch a big roe (female) from the net? How smoothly could I move, over and over again, pulling the net back, meeting the speed of Charlie’s sweep? A roe could weigh 8–10 pounds, and since you pick fish by reaching over the gill plate with just your thumb and index finger to gain purchase, I developed huge muscles between my thumb and forefinger that to this day remain formidable, probably a delicious nugget of flesh like the oyster on a chicken’s back, should someone ever want to eat me.

It was a dance, not so different from keeping up with the tickets as they come into a restaurant kitchen. The big hits of fish, when the moon was full or new, the tide strong and the evening warm, were not so different from the first balmy spring nights in SoHo when droves of couples wander into Savoy for dinner before returning home to breed.

We worked around the clock, the schedule progressing forward an hour a day with the tides. Two sets at low tide, two lifts at high. Daylight hours between tides, we weighed, sexed, separated and boxed the fish; and dried, cleaned, mended and reboxed the nets. Sunny days meant net work; rainy days might signal a welcome nap. As the season hit its stride, we barely got two hours of sleep between nighttime tides. The saving grace was the lift period — shad’s Shabbat, from Friday afternoon to midday Sunday—when no nets could be set, a supposed 36-hour escapement period allowing the fish to pass on upriver. Unfortunately for the shad, there were usually other fishers upstream awaiting their arrival.

As spring progressed, the fish came in waves. Old timers had named the runs after blossoming spring flowers and not just the shadbush or serviceberry. The first run was the forsythia, followed by magnolia, climaxing with dogwood and ending with the lilac, a run laden with huge roe fish, multiple spawners, rotund honeys who survived after laying eggs upstream their first year and return year after year. At this point I was bleary-eyed, practicing by rote my learned motions, and looked with anticipation to Friday’s lift period respite when I could go home to Tenafly and sleep 12 uninterrupted hours. I was exhausted and content. This work was the first of many repetitive actions, both skilled and mundane, that I was to practice — movements that offered a connection to the past, to humble men making a living using their hands and staying in touch with the seasons through food.

We knew the season was winding down when we caught the first backrunner, a buck shad swimming back toward the ocean, having already made his reproductive deposit. These fish were spent, exhausted from the stress of not eating during their 500-mile journey from the continental shelf off Barnegat Light to Troy and back. The lifts would lighten and the daytime workload eased. There was time to follow the caught fish to their next stop, Fulton Fish Market. We delivered to Wyant and Lockwood, two of the oldest houses in the market. Talk about teeming with life. At 4 a.m. down there you’d think you were in Times Square, all the bustling and shouting.

Roes fetched more money because they contained the prized ovaries, or roe sacs. There was a time when the daily special in every fish house in town was a pair of roe with two thick rashers of bacon laid crosswise over them. Sweet’s, Sloppy Louie’s, Gloucester House, the Oyster Bar, Gage and Tollner. But bucks taste the best and downriver ones at that. Less travel time in the river means reduced muscular stress, and while females invest more physiological energy into reproduction, males retain muscular strength for faster travel, yielding sweeter, firmer flesh. For easy eating, shad require the services of John at Smitty’s Fillet House or some other highly skilled cutter who can bone them. The myriad tiny bones can only be removed with multiple deft triangular cuts. Up and down the flesh, John caressed the fillets with a pencil-thin blade. On the downstroke he removed wedges of bony tissue, and on the upstroke he cleared the cutting board of water and slime. Mesmerized I watched, trying to decipher the moves and internalize them for my future attempts. After Smitty’s, it was fried egg sandwiches and a beer at the Paris Hotel, just up Front Street and across from Fulton’s main arcade.

With the lilacs fading and June approaching, the season ended. I spent the summer in love and headed to college in the fall. Charlie retired in 1980, but Ronnie fished almost until he died in 2006. Gear expenses mounted, shad populations declined and demand waned. The logs are probably still buried in the Edgewater mudflats ready to be floated again and set into the mud, forgotten but stiff and strong enough to resist another year of spring flood tides.

The question is: Are there still fish? Even with dozens of shadders having thrown in the towel, catches have been decreasing steadily since the ’70s. There are numerous theories as to why. Ocean intercept (catching the fish outside the harbor) has reduced the population drastically. Most intercept shad are probably ground up for fishmeal to feed farmed salmon, hardly a gastronomic trade-up.

It wasn’t until 2005 that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission placed controls on the ocean intercept haul. Given that shad spend three to five years at sea before their homeward run, scientists expected a perceptible uptick in 2008 numbers. It didn’t happen. No one knows exactly why. In addition to decades of overfishing, factors at play may include destruction of wetland habitat where young fish congregate, and power plants’ once-through cooling systems that suck up river water along with fingerling and small fry.

The invasive zebra mussel may play a role as well; discharged from a ship’s hull along with foreign water initially taken on as ballast, the species has spread throughout the Great Lakes, the Mississippi watershed and along numerous coastal rivers. These highly efficient filter feeders compete with young planktonivorous shad, eating all the food and effectively starving them. But there are still fish, probably more in the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers than the Hudson, and they continue coming to market each spring.

So should we eat them? I hope we’ll see stocks rebound this season, but, if not, there is a quandary. If we don’t eat them, don’t remind ourselves of their beauty and value, we may lose the heartfelt incentive to protect them. Uneaten, they become forgotten, no longer a cultural resource but just one more statistic belonging to scientists who map the narrowing biodiversity. Yet when we sit down to a meal, share the lore and traditions of our most indigenous fish, we help keep the necessity of the economy alive. But I don’t want to participate in their demise. With luck and some stringent management, I’ll be able to share a pair of roe with my grandchildren.

Each spring, customers call Savoy to ask when shad will be on the menu, perhaps because these days few restaurants serve it and we have a reputation for local and seasonal cooking. But it goes deeper than that. People crave shad because they need to connect to the past, to a different moment in New York life, and to the cycle of the seasons. Food unique to a certain time and place still calls out to us with a power and urgency that ubiquitous dishes found on menus in all 50 states never can. Many years we offer a shad menu, cooking it planked on an oak board in the fireplace much as Native Americans and early colonists did over fire pits. I’ve held dinner events about shad, reading excerpts from Joseph Mitchell’s Bottom of the Harbor and John McPhee’s Founding Fish.

I reconnect with the fish that hooked me on this food journey long ago, honor it by serving it and continue refining my practice of traditional and creative preparations. I prefer combining the shad and the roe or at least eating the roe in smaller portions — an entire pair is just too rich for me. A few slices of roe over warm potato salad with spring’s first chives suits me just fine. Bucks or cuts (roe shad that have had the roe sacs removed) are cheap and can be made into a delicious pickle like the best Danish pickled herring; the bones dissolve in the brine in a matter of days.

We’ve made shad roe bottarga, a riff on the traditional Italian dried tuna and mullet roe, salting it repeatedly over several days, then air drying the roe sacs for several weeks; the bright salt and brine are wonderful sliced over salad or stirred into pasta.

Slow-cooking whole shad for several hours wrapped in sorrel à la Martha Washington also dissolves the bones and, because it is so rich in fish oil, the shad doesn’t dry out. Long ago at Huberts, I invented shad roe waffles with sorrel butter. This may represent the extent of my brief foray into overreaching nouvelle cuisine. Best of all, I like to buy boned shad and, inside the flaps where the bony sections have been removed, lay herbs, lemon zest and black pepper before pan roasting the filet. Linnaeus made no mistake when he gave shad the scientific nomenclature Alosa sapidisssima — the true superlative of delicious. In my book that translates as deliciousest.


Readers Write

We received this letter following the publication of this issue.

Dear Peter,

Today I brought my daughter to work in the NY financial district and we went for sushi at the Whole Foods across the street in TriBeCa. I saw the cover of Edible Manhattan and had to have it.

I looked hard at the photo on the cover — I said to my daughter, Grace — “If that isn’t my dad and his dad hauling shad then it must be an Ingold.” Well it is not my ancestors in the photo, but that is where I recall my grandfather having his rows of poles where he hung his nets every April — at least when I was a little kid in the mid-’50s.

My dad and his dad drove tugboats on the Hudson in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s and lived between their homes in Edgewater, NJ, and Verplank, NY, for most of those years. When my dad was born in 1919 his dad was already working on the “boats.” But come April they hauled nets. I have pictures, too. Especially of the huge stripers they would inadvertently catch in a net. I recall my grandfather in my backyard with the nets hung up so he could mend them — in a house in Fort Lee they bought when my dad won a huge pot of money playing craps on the base in England before D-Day — June 1944.

My brother was born April 17, 1949, and my mom would tell people my dad (Francis “Buddy” Mitchell) was “off fishing” when he was born. Actually my grandfather, Eugene (“Bunny”) Mitchell made him do it — it was time to haul nets.

Until my dad’s death in February 2008 at 89, the Von Dohlens still allowed my dad to keep a small rowboat at their dock — in case my dad wanted to go out on his beloved Hudson River. Those Edgewater river rats were all brothers to each other — Ingolds — Von Dohlens — Mitchells — all families that once made their livelihood from the river, and sometimes in more ways than one.

Thanks so much for the article — I will share it with my brother.

Glenn Mitchell,

Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

Photos courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service