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Tennyson once wrote, "In the spring, a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love" – obviously, Lord Alfred wasn’t much of a shad fisherman!
By John Punola

For centuries shad have been arriving each spring for the spawn, and were once a main food item for early American settlers who found them in abundance in all the major rivers flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. The natives who inhabited the lands near the Delaware River always made it a point to have their villages located in strategic locations along the Delaware in order to harvest shad, upon which they feasted and often cured for later consumption.

Shad were once in such vast numbers in the early days of American life, that besides being a source of food, the natives also showed the settlers how to use shad as a fertilizer.

From times of great abundance, harvested by the wagonload, shad numbers eventually fell victim to the industries that sprang up along the Delaware River. During both World War One and World War Two, a heavy amount of polluted discharges eventually reduced the spring arrival of the huge schools of shad to near zero.

From the period after WWI, shad began a strong, steady decline in the Delaware River until they were no longer the regular spring visitor. In the spring of 1963, things changed for the better, and the polluted waters around Trenton and Philadelphia saw the return of clean, suitable water, and huge schools of shad surged upstream again. From that point forward, shad have slowly but steadily staged their comeback to their natural spawning waters.

Beginning with the spring of 2008, shad once again began a steady upturn in numbers, and the following years from 2009-2014 were also greeted with relatively good numbers of returning shad. Personally, I believe the increase in the shad population will continue to delight the faithful army of anglers who patiently looked for shad during the lean years, and who can now look forward to more productive days on the water, now and in the future. In my 40 plus years of shad fishing I was never “skunked” during any particular season and I created accurate log books on the status of Delaware River shad.

I have kept yearly records from 1972 through the 2014 season, and just recently surveyed the membership of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen Association (DRSFA) in Bethlehem, PA to find how others fared during the 2014 spring shad run. The findings were pretty impressive, as catch figures continue to climb, with plenty of optimism the shad population could soon return to levels we haven’t seen in more than 30 years.

Of the 700-plus members of DRSFA surveyed, 20 anglers reported catching a total of 2002 shad, caught during an average fishing day of 4 plus hours, by both boat and shore fishermen. Only 192 shad were kept, as the anglers averaged 10 landed shad per trip, with the remainder released to spawn and produce more shad. I can honestly tell you that 10 shad per day is a great catch.

From 1992 to 2000, there was heavy netting by commercial fishing fleets all along the Eastern Atlantic coastline that seriously depleted the large population of American Shad. Wisely, the U.S. Government decided to ban all commercial fishing activity on shad commencing with the spring shad arrivals in 2001. A 4-year phase out was enacted to conclude all commercial netting beginning with the 2005 spring shad season. It took a few years for improved spawning to generate higher shad numbers, but by 2008 shad anglers who fished the Delaware River began to see the increases.

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