Shad Run Ain’t What It Used To Be

Early June – front yard sweetened in pink weigelia, peony and mock-orange fragrance – 2023’s Connecticut River American shad run down to a trickle.

Although the announced June 8 tally of 269,720 could grow slightly by the time all fish passageways are closed, it’ll be irrelevant. The run’s over. Chalk it up as another so-so spring run, in keeping with recent trends. Although the number is about 80,000 better than last year’s, it pales in comparison to the glory years – 1983, 1984, 1991, and 1992 – when over a million shad entered the river, and to many other years with a half-million or more. Since 1976, the average run stands at 316,415.

The numbers don’t mean what they once did. Officials stopped compiling a total Connecticut River basin count in 2017. Now the tally is limited to shad passing the counting stations at the West Springfield and Holyoke dams.

From my punky perch high in the crown of an old, riverside sycamore, the Connecticut River anadromous-fisheries program seems to have taken a significant step back due to reduced funding since the cooperative, multi-faceted Atlantic Salmon Restoration Program died in 2011. Plain and simple, the cash cow was slain when the salmon-restoration plug was pulled.

With salmon now out of the mix – four thus far this year, none last year – the landscape has changed, and it’s starting to show in the fish-passage infrastructure. For years, migration past the Turners Falls dam has been under attack as ineffective. Now, the Rainbow Dam on Connecticut’s Farmington River is closed due to poor performance. So there you have it: one less outpost on a beautiful, important Connecticut River tributary. It promises to get worse in the years to come, as climate change sounds a death knell of rising river temperatures and shifting migration ranges.

I have now reported on the annual upstream migration of shad and other fish through our valley for parts of five decades. That would include American and gizzard shad, alewife and blueback herring, American eel and sea lamprey, striped bass, shortnose sturgeon, and still even an occasional wayward Atlantic salmon. My primary focus has always been gamefish. That means salmon, American shad, and, to a lesser extent over the past quarter-century, stripers. I have also watched with interest the demise of blueback-herring runs, which once far outnumbered shad and are now reduced to irrelevance.

By a wide margin, American shad are the gamefish of our annual spring migrations, and many recreational anglers take advantage of the approximately six-week-long sporting opportunity. The annual run begins in late April, when water temperatures rise into the 50s Fahrenheit, and peaks when river temps reach into the 60s. It stops when they rise into the upper 60s and low 70s, signaling spawning time. Then shad establish fixed spawning lairs and stop running.

This I have learned not only from personal observation during many enjoyable years of shad fishing, but also from countless conversations and email correspondence with experts employed by a network of state and federal agencies.

As a longtime recipient of the weekly Connecticut River anadromous-fish-migration reports issued by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I look forward to them, and have learned to independently interpret numbers that ebb and flow relative to river flow-rates and water temperature. Once snowmelt is out to sea from the upper extremes of the Connecticut Valley in northern Vermont and New Hampshire, river temperature and volume are controlled exclusively by the weather, especially rainfall.

River temperatures rise during clear, sunny, warm weather and drop during the inevitable flooding brought by spring rains. The mix of rising river temperatures and a moderate, steady flow produces optimal shad runs. On the other hand, the runs slow dramatically when heavy rain events raise the river to turbulent flood levels and drop the water temperature.

Whether these dynamics would exist on a Connecticut River without dams is a question worth pondering, because some of the migration slowdown caused by flooding results from temporary closure of fish passageways at overburdened dams. Nonetheless, my sense is that even without dams, the flood waters would slow shad and other migrating fish, which seek refuge along the edges during turbulent events.

In a perfect world for shad runs, snowmelt and spring rains would raise the river slow and steady to a crest, then gradually recede through to the peak, after which the shallows become calm for optimal spawning. But it never quite happens that way. Instead, weather events produce erratic annual runs. Nonetheless, by early June, the run is typically over, and spawning has begun.

I vividly recall one notable exception to this formula. Relying on memory alone, I would have said my recollection occurred on Memorial Day weekend in 1984; however, thanks to a tool I wouldn’t have had back then, I Googled it and found that the flooding event actually took place on the weekend after the holiday, the worst occurring between June 1 and 4.

I was a 30-year-old (soon to be 31) Greenfield Recorder sportswriter at the time, with a weekly outdoor column running each Thursday. The Recorder was then an afternoon paper with a Saturday a.m. edition that necessitated Friday split-shifts, with a skeleton night crew responsible for production of the Saturday morning paper. My Friday-night post was the so-called “sports slot,” with a midnight deadline for production of the sports section. I’d work to a furious deadline crescendo, wait for the press to roll, take one last look at my pages, and head for the South Deerfield Polish Club for last call to wind down before hitting the hay.

That June 1, driving home to South Deerfield during the midnight hour, I had to drive a quarter-mile or more through foot-deep floodwater that spilled over onto Route 5 between the current Old Deerfield Antiques shop and the northern entry into Old Deerfield. The river crested at 15 feet above flood stage the next afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut, temporarily halting what would become the second straight shad run of more than a million.

When all was said and done and the river finally settled down, the river-basin shad count was 1.231 million, which stands today as the third-best run since numbers have been kept. The previous year produced the second-best total, 1.574 million, bettered only by 1992’s record 1.628. The only other count to top a million was 1991’s total of 1.196.

Those numbers will almost certainly never again be approached.

Back then I was then an avid shad angler, making my own lures by soldering stainless-steel willow-leaf blades to large, hollow, stainless-steel hooks. My preferred tackle for the Holyoke tailrace was an 8½-foot graphite fly rod, equipped with 6-weight sink-tip line, rigged with a creative string of leaders separated by bead-chain trolling sinkers. I had learned this deadly setup from commercial fly-tier “Indian Al” Niemiec, founder of Indian Nymphs and Flies, later politically corrected to Native American Nymphs and Flies.

Once sinker adjustments were to deliver the willow leaf at the proper level in the migration channel, the action was incredible. Many a day we left the site arm-weary, following several enjoyable hours of toe-to-toe battles with pugnacious shad.

Because that ’84 flood delayed the run for weeks, I was still catching shad hand over fist into July, working a busy channel three-quarters of the way across the Deerfield River below the mouth of the South River. I had shifted to trout-fishing on that familiar stretch of river with a precious 4-weight Tonkin-cane rod after things slowed down in Holyoke. I remember fishing dry flies and cream-colored Caddis Emergers there on my 31st birthday, June 30, when I noticed the unmistakable silver flash of small shad schools passing up the channel.

No problem. I dug into my vest for the Velcro-sealed fabric bag that held my extra spool of sink-tip line, snapped it into place, and had a blast catching shad on light tackle with a variety of colorful streamers. Though I feared breaking my delicate Thomas & Thomas Hendrickson bamboo rod, it passed the test with backbone to spare.

I returned to the scene for three days with heavier shad-fishing gear and homemade willow-leaf lures, and enjoyed continued success. Then came the Fourth of July holiday, by which time I found shad circling spawning beds in the shallows. Experience told me the season was over.

I briefly stood still to observe the spawning ritual, knowing they would no longer strike shiny objects. Then I turned tail to hike back up the steep deer run to my Jeep and call it a season – one extended a month by a flood the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the Hurricane of 1936.

It was a year to remember in Mother Nature’s classroom – my kinda place.

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