The Fish That Fed America’s Founders
American shad has been a cherished, sought-after delicacy since colonial times, particularly when plank-smoked by an open fire. Photo (Illustration courtesy of Captain Morgan )
Bailey Sutherland of Andover landed this 19-inch early spring blackfish (tautog) from nearby rock piles of eastern Long Island Sound. (Photo courtesy of Captain Morgan )
Vintage photo of a fisherman’s winter flounder catch back in his heyday, circa 1980. (Photo courtesy of Captain Morgan )
It was 1776 and American shad (Alosa sapidissima) were originally cooked by smoking them on wood planks situated near an open flame. If the scent of fish didn’t get your attention, certainly the gathering of people to celebrate the river run did. It was a celebratory time and a way to cheer another successful annual return of one of America’s favorite anadromous fish.
Slowly cooked, planking shad was a way of turning this oily bony fish into a delicate meal. This method took several hours, during which time the many small pin bones dissolved, while the smoky flavor permeated the fish. A smooth oak plank was propped up next to a fire and well heated (not scorched), after which a dressed split, seasoned shad was placed on it skin side down. There, it cooked for several hours, untouched, until it was done.
The American shad, a member of the herring family, has been and is prized for its roe. A female can easily carry 100,000 to 600,000 eggs in her roe sack annually and generally returns to her spawning river when water temperatures hit the 50-degree range. In the Connecticut River, this is usually during the month of April.
For decades, American shad’s return has coincided with various events along the river and results in them getting added to menus throughout the area. Although their Atlantic coast population has declined since the turn of the 20th century and efforts have been underway to protect that fishery, there still is the same enthusiasm exhibited when they make their return.
Unlike many anadromous fish, shad can digest and assimilate food during their migration—an added benefit for the angler. These three- to eight-pound fish can be hard fighters on light gear and will take simple, specialized lures, making for an absolute fun-filled day on the water, as well as great table fare. In the past, river banks were lined elbow to elbow from the lower parts of the Connecticut River up to Enfield and beyond. Today, fishers can expect more elbow room as crowding is discouraged and social distancing is the norm. Note that the only state waterway in which fishing for American shad is allowed is the Connecticut River. The daily creel limit is six, which includes an aggregate of American and hickory.
On the Water
High winds and heavy rain set up the weekend as rivers ran fast and Long Island Sound seas kicked up to five feet. Inshore water temperatures touched 48 degrees and gave fishing another shot in the arm as signs of a migration became evident. For those fishers running small vessels, the catch results showed as a result of their ability to hit the local hot spots.
We are seeing a run of American shad making it to the upper reaches of the Connecticut River. Overlooking the effects of turbulent weather, they are nevertheless here in a timely fashion and will certainly provide food and fishing opportunities for the anglers. A light to medium trout setup, enough weight to fish near the bottom (expect hangups), six- to eight-pound test line, and a few shad darts or willow leafs is all that is needed.
Striped bass season is here! Many schoolies less than 28 inches have hit the Sound and spread out along the shoreline and into several of the minor tidal rivers and bays. They are hungry and chasing artificials and natural baits. Do not be surprised if a hook bender breaks your concentration. Putting aside those wimpy hooks is not a bad idea. Some of the most exciting action is experienced when using a 12-pound class outfit or an 8-weight fly rod during a flood tide.
Whereas fishers have not necessarily gone out of their way for multiple winter flounder in the past, today is a different story. Fresh fillets for the table and cheap fuel are giving the small boater reasons enough to hit the bays for this tasty flattie. Bringing along a family member or two makes for a healthy meal for all to enjoy. Sandworms or clams, chum, and a rigged-out medium trout rod is about all that’s needed. Remember that the daily creel limit is two fish, 12-inch-minimum length measured from the tip of the snout to the end of the tail.
Blackfish (tautog) season has been gaining steam east of New Haven. The breakwaters there have warmed, and ‘togs, as usual for this time in April, are being caught more regularly. Two fish at a 16-inch minimum length is the limit through the spring closure of Thursday, April 30.
Lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams are all seeing above-average seasonal fishing action. River trout are biting on live baits and artificials, although heavy rains have raised levels and increased flows. Many of the stocked lakes are also producing trout from the banks and when trolling deep. Largemouth bass continue to exhibit their normal pre-spawn activity, while smallie action is improving. Pickerel are attacking artificials, crappie are on small jigs, perch are taking worms, catfish and carp are sucking in bottom baits, and a few sunnies are grabbing flies along with worms.
The date of the shop’s annual trout contest has now been moved to Saturday, May 16. Registrations for the 15th annual Codi and Bubba Memorial Trout Contest will continue until then. Fish anywhere. Prizes for the three heaviest trout weighed. Social distancing practiced. Five bucks gets you in. Kids under 12 fish free when accompanied by a registered adult. It’s a good cause and donations are always welcome.
Note: Email us pics of your catches to share with our USA and international fishing friends who keep up with the latest fishing news and frequent social media.
For all things fishy, call the shop at 203-245-8665. Until next time from your Connecticut shoreline’s full-service fishing outfitter, where we don’t make the fisherman, we make the fisherman better...