MIGRATING SHADDON'T EAT, AND THEY FIGHT AS HARD AS ANY FISH IN THE WATER. IT'S A TOUGH GAME,EVEN WHEN THE BOAT HOLDS JOHN MCPHEE, THE FAMOUS AUTHOR OF THE BOOK ON SHAD,AND JIM FLYNN, THE SELF-PROCLAIMED MONARCH OF AMERICA'S GREATEST SHAD RIVER
It is 10 a.m. on abrilliant spring morning and the Shad King is sweating. It's not from heat. Itis two days before the commencement of "National Shad King Week," asthe King's wife describes it, a self-indulgent time in which he and a handfulof his cronies, the Shad Heads, do little—do nothing—but fish, sleep, and eat.(Some people refer to this eight-day stretch as the Forks of the Delaware ShadTournament, based in Easton, Pennsylvania. It is the country's largest shadtournament, and there are a pile of them.) But two weeks ago the worst flood tohit the Delaware River in half a century wrecked the valley. When the watercrested, trash, silt, and muck floated 4 feet deep in the Shad King's rivercabin. Nearby boat ramps were swept away. Riverside roads crumbled into heapsof macadam and mud-caked concrete. The river was a mess and the shadfishing—well, the King didn't want to think about it.
Then, just a weekago, a beluga whale showed up in the river, under the Trenton, New Jersey,bridge, feeding on about a billion shad and herring every day. Right now it'sattracting hordes of onlookers and sending shad fishermen into a tizzy overwhat measures the tree huggers might take in order to keep anglers a safedistance—say, 6 nautical miles—from the navigationally challenged marine mammalduring the peak of the American shad migration up America's greatest shadriver.
And there's more,for into this quagmire steps a writer for a national magazine who has come tosee just what the Shad King can do, to go where the Shad King says the heartand soul of shad fishing in America is, and to try to figure out why Americanshad fishing has a heart and soul to begin with.
Quickly, now,because it's already late and the Shad King is getting antsy—one more additionto the King's burdens: Today he and his new writer friend are to meet a mannamed John McPhee, and the Shad King is a little rattled by the prospect.McPhee is one of the most respected natural history writers of our time. Astaff writer for The New Yorker magazine and a Ferris Professor of Journalismat Princeton University, McPhee won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for generalnonfiction for his 20-year-long book project Annals of the Former World. Noneof that matters as much to the Shad King as the fact that in 2002 McPheepublished his 26th book, The Founding Fish, a tome of 358 engrossing pagesparsing every possible detail and attribute of the American shad and Americanshad fishing. During his research for the book, McPhee tried to hook up withthe Shad King, but it never happened. Now it's happening.
So the Shad Kinghas a few things on his mind. Months in advance of a migratory period that canshift by weeks on either end, he'd chosen a date for us to fish. Now it's latein the morning, later than he'd like it, and we step into his fishing partner's19-foot Monark metal skiff, dubbed the Shad II. We push off into the Foul Riftpool, a mile-long slack below the largest rapid on the longest undammed riverin eastern America, a place where generations of the Shad King's family havecast for the world's largest herring, to see what he can do.
Let me tell you upfront that this is going to be a fishing story in which relatively few fishappear, and that you shouldn't hold it against the Shad King. That's not theway he wants it. It's not what he's accustomed to. But these are American shad,and that is the way it is.
The Shad King isJim Flynn, a 50-year-old husband, father, fisherman, and field supervisor for apropane gas company from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, hard on the Delaware River.He is red-faced and blue-eyed, boisterous and boyish and blissful that he livesin a small town where being a big kid at 50 years of age does not gounappreciated. There might be more dissimilar figures than the Shad King andthe unassuming, self-effacing, professorial John McPhee. It is, for example,unlikely that conditions would ever exist to prompt McPhee to parade up anddown the Delaware River in an $8 Party City crown adorned with plastic rubies,as the King has done. But for all their differences, a few things they share.Each is utterly convinced that this untrammeled, largely agrarian swath ofnorthwestern New Jersey is a little piece of heaven on earth. And each is inlove with the American shad.
It could be arguedthat the American shad presents a greater possibility for future gains inrecreational fishing opportunity than any other fish. They are native toeastern rivers from Labrador to Florida, and in recent years along the easternseaboard, dam removals and new ways of passing migratory fish around dams haveopened up thousands of miles of spawning habitat closed to shad for decades. Onthe west coast, the fish aren't native, but they've been there since 1871, whenfour milk cans of Hudson River juvenile shad were carted by railroad andstagecoach and poured into the headwaters of California's Sacramento River. Inthe Columbia River states, American shad populations have quadrupled since 1970and now support an enormous recreational fishery.
Shad fishing isbuilt on the premise that the fish don't eat anything at all during theirmigrations from the ocean to the freshwater rivers where they spawn. Instead,American shad are said to slash and strike out of annoyance, or irritation, orinstinct, or some reason other than hunger. But here's the trick: For whateverreason they strike, when they do, the result can be spectacular. The samemorphological attributes that allow shad to swim for an average of 2,000 mileseach year give them plenty of ways to trip up a reel drag. They sport thedeeply forked tail of tuna, bonefish, and other speedsters. A flat, compressedprofile slices through current like a scimitar, and when a shad turns its deep,wedge-shaped body broadside to the current, the fisherman has to fight theforce of the entire river, and the fish knows it. Sounding or leaping, Americanshad are, as an old saw goes, "pound for pound, the fight'n'st fisharound."
Which is a goodthing, because the odd pound of shad is all we're going to get.
Foul Rift is ahalf-mile run of ledge-slashed haystacks, souse holes, and standing waves. Atcertain levels, jet-drive outboards can pick their way through, but not today.We hug the "Pennsie side," as the King describes it, worming our wayalong boulders silt-blasted to a baby-smooth finish. Tufts of leaves, trashbags, and a pair of gym shorts are tangled 12 feet high in the trees. Mystomach knots at the thought of so much water thundering through.
We anchor up at astrong eddy line, what the Shad King calls a "back-wash," and he andhis buddy Tim Clymer go to work on the downriggers. McPhee draws a fingerthrough a clear plastic lure box and ties on a small dart—pink and white with atail of pearl Flashabou. He snips off the tag end of line with the scissorsfrom a Leatherman tool.
To catch a shad,according to McPhee, the fisherman must be able to read the river like awhitewater kayaker. Below rapids, where the roiling, swift currents unspooldownstream from the rocks, eddy lines form on both sides of the pool. Pods ofshad hold beside the seam, and whether the angler is casting or fishing withdownriggers, eddy lines are where the action is. When there is action. In goodyears, McPhee tells me, the fish are everywhere. Most years, however, it's agame of patience, frequently giving way to outright endurance. "It seemslike I can spend a month waiting for something to happen," he says,"then you can have your whole season in a day or two."
His right leg iscrossed over his left, forming a shelf on which he rests his hands, twitchingthe rod tip to life every few seconds. "That's all it takes," heexplains, "just a little took...took every now and then."
But it's notworking. Not today, not here. We catch the occasional shad, but none are overlylarge or feisty. None are showy or jumpy like shad are supposed to be. Theysurge for a few moments, but not in a manner that makes memories. It's a longtime between fish, but it's still early in the day. There's time.
To fill it, Clymerexplains the genesis of the Shad King's royalty. In 1998, the King won theForks of the Delaware Shad Tournament with a7.23-pound buck fish. Winning thisis the regional equivalent of coming home with the Heisman Trophy; even thelady at the convenience-store checkout knows who wins, and she can likely quotea list of the last decade's winners. "It's big around here," Clymersays. "I'm telling you—people covet that tournament." The followingwinter, the King's cronies at deer camp dubbed him the "Shad King" andheld a coronation ceremony with a cheap party crown. It was an adolescentprank, fueled by deer-camp liquor and small-town friendships. It gotbetter.
That spring, theShad Heads solicited friends to pony up $10 apiece to place an ad in the localpaper, complete with a photograph of the crowned king with a fishing-rodscepter, wishing the Shad King "Good Luck from your Loyal Subjects" forthe next tournament. It was designed to be a "bust"—the Shad Heads'term for good-natured ribbing or practical jokes, such as drilling a hole in aboat angler's pee can—but Flynn seeks the limelight like a shad seeks shade,and he can take as good as he gives. Embracing the name, the crown, and thebenefits of local notoriety, he became the darling of tournament boosters andturned into the go-to interviewee for reporters covering shad fishing. Hemotored up and down the river in his crown. He attracted the attention ofMcPhee. "If we'd known it was going to be this big," Clymer says with alaugh, "we'd have thrown that crown in the trash can."
But the King is notdelivering today, when the spotlight is on. McPhee tries to relieve thesuffocating pressure of no fish. "My being here doesn't bode well," heoffers, softly. "I consistently catch the fewest fish. I don't know what itis."
"What itis," says the King, "is that these are not fish. They're damnedshad."
"Yes,"McPhee says. He's quiet for a long moment, as if that's all there is to sayabout it. Took...took.
We give the spot 45minutes of effort, changing depths, spoon colors, spoon sizes, the orientationof the boat in the current. Four men in a shad boat on the Delaware in springshouldn't have to work this hard for fish.
"People takeoff their week of vacation to fish for shad here," McPhee says, shaking hishead.
"This is theYankee Stadium of shad fishing."
The Shad King'sshoulders slump.
We motordownstream, to a wide spot in the river beneath the 500-foot-tall smokestacksand cooling towers of Pennsylvania Power & Light's Martins Creek plant.It's a surreal atmosphere, fishing for wild fish in the shadow of such amonolithic industrial presence. Clymer is on the throttle, watching the depthnumbers on the fishfinder. The Shad King is on his knees in the bow, a whiteanchor line snaking through his hands. He knows with precision where he wantsthe boat and keeps one eye on the shore for position, but he's a littlehandicapped ever since the flood ripped away the refrigerator that long ago hadlodged itself against a tree just opposite the underwater shelf. Now it's allabout the numbers telegraphing the bottom profile.
"Elevenfeet," Clymer drones. "Eleven. Ten. Ten."
"Keep itcoming," says the King. "I want it up on the ledge."
"Ten. Ten. Ten.Nine."
"Now. Shut herdown."
In his mind, theKing says, he imagines the river's bottom as the shad see it. They are on therun, moving with an urgency that pushes a fish from the deep ocean to rivershallows hundreds of miles from the sea. The buck shad are"squirrelly," and they'll venture into shallower water. Not so theroes. "I think they keep their noses buried in the river channel and justgo."
He explains thestrategy. The Foul Rift pool is deep, 20, 40, 60 feet in places, but at thehead of the pool there's a change. The water starts to foam. The fish can hear,or feel, or sense in the way that fish sense the world in a manner fishermencan't understand, the rapids ahead. Below the power plant the river channelsnakes away from the Jersey bank to the Pennsie side, and so do the fish. Rightthere the bottom starts to rise, and so do the fish. "We want metal intheir faces right as they bump up the ledge."
McPhee looks outover the broad, nearly fea-tureless run. He deadpans: "I don't see how wecan miss."
Five seconds laterthe Shad King's rod bends deep. "Right as I was feathering it over theledge." He nudges me and crooks a finger at me, at the rod, at the placewhere the line disappears into the Delaware, grinning, a red-faced cherub of aman for whom it's all a little better now.
Clymer is rightthere for him. "Don't get all puffed up. One isn't the magic number,"he says. I can hear the air leave the King. "You'll know when we have themdialed in."
So we wait for thenext fish—hoping, wishing, trying to believe that the shad just landed was thefirst or second or 50th in a phalanx of migrating shad that at this very momentstretches from Foul Rift to the sea. We're greeted with nothing. An hour ofnothing. Two. It's not a bad way to spend a pretty spring day. But I'm glad I'mnot the Shad King.
It's two o'clocknow, and before every cast, every time, without fail, the Shad King firstchecks the action of his flutter spoon. He studies it for flotsam fouled in thesplit ring or draped over the willow blade. He dips it in the river currentbeside the boat, quiet for the moment, making sure that it flutters just so.Because when the spoon is fluttering, so too is the bright gold long-shankedhook hand-soldered to it. And it is that agitated, quivering action of the goldhook, the King is convinced, that entices the shad to strike.
"Not the spoonitself?" I ask.
"Nah,"says the King.
"What aboutcolor?" McPhee queries. Most shad fishermen carry spoons in at least adozen color combinations, all hand-painted, all requiring multiple coats ofpigment and clear coat and glitter. Pink-on-white. Orange. Chartreuse-on-green.Some are speckled, others striped. "Does color seem to make adifference?"
"Nah,"says the King. "It's the flutter of that gold hook. The shad just can'ttake it."
But the shad aretight-lipped despite the flutter spoons fluttering all around our boat. In twohours of fishing, our four rods take three fish. The slow fishing means longperiods of silence in the boat. We haven't been fishing together long enoughfor the quiet to feel altogether comfortable, not like guys such as the Kingand Clymer, who sometimes fish for 14 hours a day, day after day, within arod's length of each other. The occasional shad yanks the line, but these fishleave in their wake silences that beg to be filled by something—other fish,preferably. Instead, they're filled by the whine of the downrigger wiresvibrating in the current.
In McPhee'sdefense, this is not his preferred method of fishing for shad. He is anadvocate of the traditional shad dart, offered to shad in the traditionalmanner, meaning cast across the current, with the river's flow swinging thedart into the eddy lines below.
That's how mostanglers caught shad for decades. But over the last 15 years or so, downriggershave altered the landscape of American shad fishing, at least in the DelawareRiver. Just the day before, I'd stood in George "Pappy" Magaro's19-foot skiff, on a current seam at the confluence of the Delaware and LehighRivers. (This is actually the "forks" of the Delaware; the Lehigh waslong considered a branch of the main stem.) The boat bristled with downriggers.Magaro is a retired Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, firefighter, festooned withtattoos and turquoise jewelry, subtle as a gaff. He pours untold hours into theDelaware River Shad Fishermen's Association, of which he is the currentpresident, and fishes this very same current seam 60, 70, 80 days in aseason.
For a long time,Magaro told me, it was shad darts and nothing but. Then someone showed up witha downrigger. "My catch rate went up 70 percent," he said. A lot ofpeople don't like downriggers, he admitted. "They think it's cheating. Butfishfinders and downriggers put your bait right where the fish are. Since whenis that cheating?"
In only one placein McPhee's opus to the American shad does he mention the notion of adownrigger. It is in a passage about one of the Delaware's great icons of shadfishing, Buddy Grucela, a guy who grew up near Foul Rift. In 1982 Grucela wroteThe Original Guide to Better Shad Fishing on the Delaware River. A man who notonly made his own shad darts but had a machinist custom-make his own shad-dartmold, Grucela "spurns downriggers," McPhee wrote. McPhee then observed,not so subtly, "He prefers to do the fishing himself."
Now it's fouro'clock, and we're all a little antsy. We've been anchored in a new spot fortwo hours and the only action has been a fish lost when the downrigger failedto release. If I'd had X-ray vision to see through his hat brim, I am sure Iwould have seen McPhee wince. A man with a fish pole in his hands might havelanded that fish.
We pull anchor totry something new. Foran hour we've watched a small boat filled with Herberts,another stalwart Foul Rift family, pull in half a dozen shad by trollingflutter spoons up the pool, inching slowly upcurrent. With each Herbert fish Icould feel the noose tighten on the Shad King. Then, suddenly, as McPhee reelsin his line, his rod tip bows. The King tenses, but unfortunately it's not afish. McPhee's line has wrapped ingloriously around the downrigger apparatus. Ireach over to unbraid the snarl, and the line breaks. I wrap the loose linearound my left hand, bringing the dart back to the boat, and that's when asilver-green shape slashes toward the surface. After we've spent hoursanalyzing bottom contours and dialing in downriggers to put our lures within afoot or two of the channel bottom, a fish porpoises in 14 feet of water to takea shad dart a foot deep? Why would a shad do that? What's it doing this closeto the surface?
A mere 6 or 7 feetseparate me from the fish, so there's no line stretch to work with, nowhere theshad can go. The King and Clymer hoot at the spectacle, and for maybe 15seconds I fight the fish by hand, no downrigger to blunt the electric jolt ofevery surge, no limber rod to take the brunt of each swift change of directionwhen the fish turns its fat, hatchet-head belly into the current.
Shad havenotoriously fragile mouths, and I know the papery membrane that holds the hookwon't be able to sustain this kind of abuse. It's a fine line shad fishermenwalk every time they hook a fish. "Don't horse it!" angling partnersyell, unhelpfully, knowing full well that the guy with the rod in his hand istrying his level best to avoid just that. I desperately try to unwrap a fewcoils of line to feed the green fish a bit of slack, careful not to jerk orpull too hard, and that's when the line goes slack, the shad disappears, andthe dart dangles behind the boat. I groan. But there, for a few seconds, I'dcome as close as anyone could to reaching out and touching a live, migratingAmerican shad with as few physical intermediaries as possible. It left memomentarily speechless.
Not so the ShadKing. He is beside himself. "Craziest thing I've ever seen!" hehollers. Clymer whoops with glee. When I glance at McPhee, he is behind his hatbrim, quietly running a finger through his lure box, ciphering the future.
At seven thetrollers pick up an other shad. We catch nothing. The sunlight coming throughthe trees on the Pennsie side is gorgeous, filtering through young leaves.Birds begin to sing their evening songs—a mourning dove, a meadowlark. We catchnothing. Minutes, a half hour, tick by. A peacock crows from someone'sbackyard. Clymer looks at the King. "That's usually the signal that it'sgetting ready to bust loose," he says. We catch nothing. My heart'sbreaking for the Shad King. I know these guys can catch fish. The King andClymer have caught fish so fast that they couldn't keep the downriggers lockedand loaded. They've caught 40, 50 fish in a day and more. They've won dailies,won the tournament. A sparrow sings. Nothing. The sun drops down to anotherbranch. Nothing. Arms crossed, hands in pockets, McPhee is in the right-handseat, jigging his shad dart halfheartedly with a bump of the knee.
The Shad Kingshrugs. "Sorry there weren't many fish. I wish we could have caught a fewmore." It's the shoe-shuffling apology every fisherman has heard—andoffered.
But nobody'sholding anything against anyone. No one is here to dethrone the Shad King. Andthat's when it occurs to me that this is the heart and soul of shad fishing.Not the good days, when you work double hookups for hours on end and the paintand glitter and depth don't matter. This is when the heart and soul of shadfishing comes to the surface— when the fish are in the river and you are on itand the water temperature is just right and the light is low and shade iscreeping and the peacock crows and all day long you have caught next tonothing. And then nothing at all. And still, you fish.
McPhee seemsgenuinely happy to have spent a half day on the water, in the company of a crewof rabble-rousers quite unlike himself, ribbing each other with insidejokes.
"I've been tothe Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River, where 5 million shad pass throughevery spring." McPhee tells the story softly, as an aside to the fallinglight and the hush of fishermen with few fish to discuss.
The Shad King'sthin eyebrows arch over his glasses. "Five million shad?" In recentyears, the Delaware has hosted somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 migratingfish.
"Oh, yes.People in this part of the country rarely think about shad being in the PacificNorthwest, but the Columbia is home to the largest run of shad in theworld."
"Five millionshad?" says the Shad King. It's a figure he seems to have trouble grasping.It's not a matter of disbelief, not that he thinks it can't possibly be true,or that McPhee is mistaken or dishonest. But standing in the boat dubbed theShad II, afloat on the Yankee Stadium of shad fishing, this man whose liferevolves around shad—he just can't get his mind around a river full of 5million shad.
"Five million.Did you hear that, Timmy?" He grows quiet. It is a very un-King-likemoment. But then he reaches down to study his flutter spoon and to pluck awaypart of an oak catkin caught on the shank. It's only the size of a mustardseed, but it's just enough to foul the flutter. And whether there are 5 millionfish in the river or the fading hope of a single one, the Shad King is takingno chances.