I used to get up at 3 a.m. to meet a guy with a boat in Lambertville to be assured we’d get a good channel spot during the spring shad run on the Delaware River. Now some 30 years later, I prefer sleeping in.
We did catch shad, a herring on steroids, and it was a hoot, from what a foggy memory recalls. But other than the good times catching it was invariably cold, damp and generally miserable on a surly river usually running high, fast and the charming shade of mud, or dog poop depending on your interpretation of the color spectrum. And on the food front, shad on the plate is no match for fluke or mahi for salty fare, or another inhabitant of the river on the freshwater front, walleye. Shad, to be honest, is meal meh. Shad roe? Not for me, but some folks love the seasonal fare, especially wrapped in bacon.
So what’s the fuss all about, why bother? It’s pretty simple; shad are fun to catch. They are not slackers that go side or belly-up and submissively slide into your net. This species is rightfully nick-named “poor man’s salmon” as they leap, thrash, pull and use a swift river current to their advantage. They are not meekly brought to boat or shore. Add more points for being a slivery, flashy fish. Sassy shad indeed.
I have been fortunate to have fished the Delaware River for shad all the way from Lackawaxen Pool down to Trenton, or the other way around. But I’m much more familiar with the lower and somewhat middle parts of the fishery and my faves remain the wing dam below Lambertville, under the Washington Crossing Bridge, launching either upriver at Titusville or downriver from Yardley, PA. I lived in Titusville for close to 40 years; the river was a mile down the road. And like many other “fishy” spots close by, it’s one you pass by on the way to someplace else.
Across the road from the Golden Nugget Flea Market was a good launch, and also a fine shore fishing spot, as was the old Portland Power Plant farther upriver. The late Howie Brant, outdoor writer for the Newark Star Ledger at the time, tipped me off on the shoreline guys fishing up at Walpack Bend. I have fond memories of sipping “river tea” from Thermos bottles, lunch at the old Layton Hotel and catching shad the old-fashioned way, by tossing a red and white or yellow and red shad dart upriver and bouncing it just above the bottom. Snags were inevitable, but catches made up for lost lead lures.
The limit has become just two as of 2023, while herring catching and keeping is banned. We had a great time back in the day catching herring on unbaited gold hooks and ultra-light spinning rods. Another joy killed by the desk jockeys. I’m not a fisheries biologist, but some of these drones need to get out of the office and onto the river.
In “the old days,” the late Joe Greenday, outdoor writer for the old Philadelphia Daily News, and I were hunkered in at the Shawnee-on-Delaware resort bar during a writers’ conference. We figured we had more than 50 years writing experience between us and didn’t need another lecture on how to peddle our scribbling. “One more drink, barkeep,” and then sufficiently “loosened up,” we played a round of golf on the famed Shawnee course (Joe was a low handicapper, me a duffer) and we fished for shad out back in the river. I had the upper hand there, experience wise. We caught shad.
A few years later we were at another writers’ pow-wow near Raystown Lake in Pennsylvania where striped bass is the main attraction. As I recall, the fishing was slow thus Joe and I shuffled into the hotel lounge (you may have noticed a pattern here) and asked the bartender how far it was to State College where Penn State and Rutgers were playing that day. We ended up getting good seats for $20 from a scalper and saw RU beat Penn State. It was 1988 and I don’t believe the Scarlet Knights have topped the Lions in football since.
Closer to home, the Lewis Fishery at Holcomb Island in Lambertville is the last, I believe, commercial netting operation for shad on the Delaware River, and is done with rowboats and drop nets. Fred Lewis is no longer with us; I interviewed him a number of times, looked at his log books for catch numbers for years, some good, some not so much, gone by. And I will always remember his answer for how to cook shad – “Hell, I just fry ’em in butter,” said Fred. Amen.
The netting operation goes on each spring thanks to Fred’s grandson. And if you have a hankering to try shad fishing, go when you see them in the nets at Lambertville. They’re in the river; up to you to catch.