They're in the River
I hadn't been a shad fisherman all my days, only seven years, on the May evening when this story begins in a johnboat, flat and square, anchored in heavy current by the bridge in Lambertville, on the wall of the eddy below the fourth pier. I say Lambertville (New Jersey) because that's where we launch, but the Delaware River is more than a thousand feet wide there, and, counting west- ward, the fourth of the five stone bridge piers is close to New Hope, Pennsylvania. Yet it rises from the channel where the river is deepest.
American shad are schooling ocean fish, and when they come in to make their run up the river they follow the deep channels. In the estuary toward the end of winter, they mill around in tremendous numbers, waiting for the temperature in the cold river current to rise. When it warms past forty Fahrenheit, they begin their migration, in pulses, pods males (for the most part) first. Soon, a single sentence moves northward with them in e-mails, on telephones, down hallways, up streets sending amps and volts through the likes of me. The phone rings, and someone says, "They're in the river." No two shad fishermen agree on much of anything, but I would say that if a female takes your lure you know it from the first moments, or think you do, and you're not often wrong. If you have a male on, you may be at first uncertain. but then he displays his character and you know it's a buck shad. The roe shad is often twice the size of the buck shad. She may weigh five to six pounds, while he weighs two or three. Shad don't exactly strike. First there's a fixed moment a second or two in which you feel what appears to be a snag (and might be); then the bottom of the river seems to move, as if you are tied to a working trampoline; and you start thinking five, six pounds, big fillets in the broiler, the grained savor of lemoned roe; but now this little buck shad two and a half pounds takes off across the river, flies into the air, and struts around on his tail. He leaps again. He leaps once more and does a complete somersault. He can't be said to be cocky, of course, but he suggests cockiness and pretension. He's all show and no roe. She doesn't move. Her size and weight are not at first especially employed. Yet here is the message she sends up the line: If this isn't bedrock you'd be better off if it were; if you're in a hurry, get out your scissors. She stays low, and holds; and soon you are sure about the weight and the sex. Now, straight across the river and away, deep, she strips line, your reel drag clicking. She turns and moves back, an arcuate run. You're supposed to keep things taut but often she'll do it for you. When, rising, she rolls near the surface, she looks even larger than she is. She, too, can leap, can do a front flip, but she obviously knows that her shrewdest position is broadside to full current. It's as difficult to move her as it would be to reel in a boat sideways.
Like salmon, shad return to their natal rivers and eat nothing on the spawning run. Lake salmon swimming two thousand miles up the Yukon River, migrating shad exist on their own fat. So why do shad and salmon respond to lures? Up and down the river, almost everybody has an answer to that fundamental question, but no one bartender or biologist really knows. A plurality will tell you that the fish are expressing irritation. Flutter something colorful in their faces and shad will either ignore it completely or snap at it like pit bulls. More precisely, they'll swing their heads, as swordfish do, to bat an irritant aside. They don't swallow, since they're not eating. Essentially never does a hook reach the gills, or even much inside the mouth. You hook them in the mouth's outer rim in the premaxillary and maxillary bones and sometimes in the ethmoid region at the tip of the snout, all of which are segments of the large open scoop that plows through plankton at sea.
Below the Lambertville-New Hope bridge that evening, I was using a shad dart of my own malting. A small metallic cone, it trailed bucktail tied on in a vise. Its body was chartreuse. Its base was dark green. It was coated with clear gloss. Extending with the bucktail from the tip of the cone, its No. 2 hook was black and chemically sharpened. Because the hook shaft includes a right angle and the eye emerges from the side of the cone, a shad dart is hydrodynamically hapless. It flips and flops and buzzes around like a fly that needs killing. If it snags, you're likely to lose it. Snags happen often. Held in the water column by the driving current, my dart was out about seventy feet. Three of us were in the boat, close and tandem. I was in the middle, fishing over the shoulder of the skipper, Ed Cervone. Fishing over my shoulder was Ed's son, Edmund Cervone. Each of them had caught several shad, varying in sex, notable in size. I had caught two roe shad. The sun was setting. It was seven-thirty. Quitting time was upon us, but the rod in my hand was suddenly pulled by a great deal more than the current. The Cervones reeled in their darts and stowed their rods. They would wait and watch, as people do when someone else in a boat has a fish on the line. It felt heavy. It maintained for some time a severe tug without much lateral movement. "Female," I said. "Six pounds." Cervone the Elder, who has a doctorate in psychology, seemed unimpressed seemed to be suggesting, through a light shrug, that he knew bullshit by its cover. He knew he wasn't fishing with Buddy Grucela. He knew he wasn't fishing with Erwin Dietz or Gerald Hartzel living figures in the Cooperstown of shad. He knew that in my seven years as a shad fisherman I had risen steadily into a zone of terminal mediocrity. And he was well equipped to empathize. Ours was one of twelve boats below and around the western bridge piers. Nearly all the others had been doing well, too. When that fish of mine came on the line toward the end of the day, a guy in the boat next to us looked over and said, "It doesn't get any better than this, does it?" At that moment, thirty feet of line came off the reel against the drag. I thought the line would snap.
Dietz and Hartzel are waders, bank fishermen, and you'd usually encounter them far upriver at least three hundred miles above the sea buoy where the Delaware is narrow, is punctuated with riffles and rapids, and has cut a deep gorge in the Pocono-Catskill plateau. The night air, cooler than the water, makes a thick early mist there. If you wanted to fish near a monumental figure like Dietz, and possibly be there ahead of him, you had to be on the river before dawn. As the light came up, it revealed a dark silhouette in the drifting vapors, standing on a rock catching fish. He always knew how many. "How many is that?" "Eleven." I could fish near him until the sun was high, doing everything he did, and catch nothing, or one or two. Nearing retirement, he was a mason then, in New York City construction. He lived in Queens. Somewhere in my fishing diaries I wrote: "He recovers his dart and casts anew faster than anyone I've ever seen. He brings fish in rapidly, and swiftly releases them. Then his dart is in the air. He is very sensitive on the jig, his rod tip high, his twitch minimal. While I am fishless, Dietz's rod is electric with excitement. Two. Three. Four. He works fish. I watch. And watch. He loses a dart to a snag. Cool. He is idle. Out of it. I am casting two, three, four. The numbers refer to casts but not to shad. At last he finishes tying on a new dart, and he flings it into the river. It swings through the current, and his rod is bent by another fish. How . . . Does . . . He . . . Do . . . It? After he casts, he holds his rod at a forty-five-degree angle. His wrist flicks almost imperceptibly at a consistent rate of about once a second. He says he can feel the shad bump the dart in the center of the current, bump it again, and then go for it. His line and his lures are identical with mine. I imitate him as precisely as I can. He hooks fish, I hook water." As Gerald Hartzel stepped into the upper river at five-thirty of a June morning after driving more than three hours his shad net would be bolstered on his back so that its hoop rose above his head like a circular antenna. He reached for it often. He used a five-and-a-half-foot rod with four-pound line and an ultra-light reel. He had a long wooden staff that floated on a tether beside him. He was slim. Six feet. Polaroid glasses. On his brown hat were two fishing licenses. Sewn on both his hat and his vest was the orange-and-green emblem of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen's Association. He cast with a short direct punch from eye level, as if he were throwing a dart not so much at a fish as at a tavern wall. As one such morning began, he caught a shad, and then another, but not rapidly, and he seemed puzzled. Then, arms up, he began to hold the rod high before him, as if he were reaching for a shelf, and, in quick succession, he flipped up the tip, up again, up once more fish on the line. Rooted in fast water, apparently tireless, he caught shad after shad after shad, always with his arms extended high. His darts were very small. Across the morning, they were in the water an amazing percentage of the total time. He was efficient in the rhythm of his casts. Page 1, line 1: If your dart is not in the water you are not catching fish. Jigging twitching the line, he gave complete attention to each moment of every swing, his eyes swinging, too, like a long-bah hitter's. After fishing downstream from him, I quit when he did. In four and a half hours, I had caught six shad, including one roe that I kept. In the four and a half hours, he had landed twenty-one shad. Wearily rubbing a shoulder, he said, "Did you see what I had to do?"
Copyright © 2002 John McPhee