The Town Obsessed with American Shad

The Town Obsessed with American Shad by Joe Cermele You know it's time to party when a certain smell comes wafting down the Delaware River in Central New Jersey. To some, it's the scent of a culinary delight. To others (myself included) it just smells like old bait that's been left in the sun. I'm talking about the perfume of American shad being grilled at the annual Shad Festival in Lambertville, NJ. Here, hundreds of people gather for the weekend to praise this fish. So when I decided to check out the festivities, I figured what better way to start than by getting on the water and hooking into a "poor man's salmon."Joe Cermele
Don't you dare scoff at the idea of catching shad. Maybe they don't have the prestige of steelhead or largemouth, and perhaps many just see them as bait fish, but until you've actually hooked a pissed-off 7-pound American shad, you can't understand just how challenging it is to get it in the boat. These fish are on a mission to breed, and having to fight with you is wasting their precious travel time. So what do they do? Scream drags, jump, dog, speed right at you...whatever it takes to shake the hook. That's why I thought it best to get some help from a local shad sharpie.Joe Cermele
Captain Dieter Scheel has been fishing the Delaware at Lambertville for over 25 years. He's got every little channel the shad use dialed in with pinpoint accuracy, because in this game, location is everything. Five feet off the mark and you catch nothing, which is why it's not uncommon for ten boats to be anchored in the same area, but only one is catching shad. That one is usually Scheel.Joe Cermele
Scheel's RiverPro jet boat has a wider beam than most you'll find on the Delaware. That, combined with a clever technique for setting a shad spread, gives him an edge. With strategic placement of his rod holders and by incorporating two steelhead noodle rods up to 11-feet long in the mix, Scheel can cover up to 25 feet of water, whereas the average shad hunter covers six if he's lucky.Joe Cermele
And on the end of each line is a shad dart or flutter spoon set at different depths in the water column. Why the shad crush them is one of fishing's greatest mysteries. It's a known fact that shad coming upriver do not feed, yet they smack these offerings with ferocity.Joe Cermele
Most shad end up hooked in the mouth, and gut hooked fish are rare. But the mouth of a shad is paper-thin, making landing one that much more difficult. It requires a slow-action rod, a good drag, and patience.Joe Cermele
As shad tend to change direction with lightning speed, the long steelhead rods proved to be an effective tool. Scheel explained that the rod's length and soft action keeps just enough tension on the fish at all times so it can't gain any slack as it turns. My friend Gabriel Hnat stayed on this fish for about ten minutes before we saw the first flash of silver near the surface.Joe Cermele
The roe shad Hnat hooked weighed in at about 5 pounds. These larger female fish follow behind the smaller males, or bucks. You know that when all you catch are roes, the season is beginning to wind down.Joe Cermele
After catching a few shad in the morning, Scheel pulled the boat up to Lewis Island so we could watch the shad nets come in. The Lewis family, who owns the island, has been seining shad in the Delaware since 1865, and they are the only commercial operation still licensed to net on the river. They do this in the traditional manner, using nothing but manpower and rowboats to set the net and bring it in.Joe Cermele
You never know exactly what will come in with each pull of the net. In this haul, a few American shad were landed, along with loads of gizzard shad and a few other surprises like...Joe Cermele
...one very fat Delaware River carp, and...Joe Cermele
...even this nice brook trout. All species other than American shad are quickly returned to the river unharmed.Joe Cermele
Before getting back on the water, Hnat and I decided to walk the street to scope out the flavors of the festival. It looked like fun and smelled like shad...lots and lots of shad.Joe Cermele
These guys are grilling up fillets for shad sandwiches. They swear you won't find a single bone, but shad are notoriously tricky to fillet. Because A) they're very greasy and hard to hold, and B) they're full of very fine Y bones. These fillets were rubbed with Cajun spices and served on a hamburger bun.Joe Cermele
This is planked shad, prepared in traditional style, which requires tying the shad to the plank, basting it in salt, pepper, and butter, and baking the whole thing. They say George Washington really enjoyed planked shad. I've heard that you're better off tossing the shad and eating the plank, but then again, what do I know.Joe Cermele
Here we have shad roe marinating in vinegar. This was part of a historic exhibit, but roe is considered a true delicacy. You'll often find it mixed with scrambled eggs, or, perhaps most famous of all, sliced, wrapped in bacon, and pan-fried.Joe Cermele
To make shad punch, you first grind the scales and liver into a puree and combine it with milk and prune juice. Nah, just kidding. Shad punch is just iced tea and lemonade mixed.Joe Cermele
Okay, so maybe those are really largemouth bass on their hats, but I give these ladies an A+ for effort and present them the "Most Shad Spirit" award, which I just thought up while writing this. Congrats from the F&S; staff!Joe Cermele
If you're a collector of shad art, there's plenty of it at Shad Fest. Here, local artist Elizabeth Secrest displays some of her metal work.Joe Cermele
Either it was the party atmosphere or the adrenaline of the fight, but clearly I was excited to hook this shad when we went back out in the afternoon.Dieter Scheel
There was no better way to draw the festival, and the 2008 shad season, to a close.Joe Cermele
Scheel released my fish so she could continue upstream and provide more action in springs to come, unless, of course, she ends up a shad sandwich, in which case someone else will enjoy her far more than I.Joe Cermele