Week 22. Wakefield Ruritan Club: 69th Annual Shad Planking
One of the great spring-fishing traditions in the mid-Atlantic is the shad run: the rule of thumb is that when the cherry blossoms and dogwoods hit peak bloom, the shad run is in full swing. They only come up the rivers for a few weeks to spawn, but when they’re here, they’re in there thick, and can be one of the best fightin’ fish pound-for-pound.
For centuries, on rivers from the Roanoke to the Rappahannock to the Susquehanna, anglers harvested shad by the millions each spring, nailed them to a board, and roasted them over live coals. The Native Americans and colonial settlers started the tradition, but there’s a strong case to be made that the Wakefield Ruritan Club perfected it.
To be sure, I’m not talking about the recipe, but the party.
It all started in the 1930s with an informal gathering of friends each spring celebrating the shad run on the James River, and by 1949, the Wakefield Ruritan Club had started hosting the event. The crowds grew each year and of course the politicians weren’t far behind to fish for votes. The event evolved into a good-natured political roasting, and of course the candidates started supplying free draft beers to liven up the crowd and wash down the smoked shad.
Now in its 69th year, the Wakefield Shad Planking has been described by New York Times reporter and Arlington native Jonathan Martin as “part political festival, part boozefest” and by CNN reporter and Richmond native Peter Hamby as “part Garden and Gun, part Guns and Ammo.”
Martin jokes while it was once a place for southern white men to set the Democratic ticket, the conservative Dems have mostly become conservative Republicans, African-Americans and women are now welcome, and perhaps more amazingly, Northern Virginians are too. To that end, its recently rebranded as the Shad Planking and Grain & Grapes Festival to attract a wider audience, but the menu is still the same with smoked shad, roe, coleslaw, cornbread, and cold beers.
I caught up with Shad Planking former Chairman Eric Brittle, who also happens to be the Virginia DGIF Fisheries Biologist for the Southeast region and former President of the Virginia Chapter of the American Fisheries Society.
We talked during a March cold snap when we were waiting for the shad to show up. Eric told me about some of his favorite moments of the Shad Planking but more importantly when those shad would start filling the rivers.
As Chair of the Shad Planking and fisheries biologist for the region, you must have a pretty good read on the shad fishing!
Well most of my job is spent on the river sampling water quality, so the last thing I want to do after work is hook up with a boat! So I don’t do as much fishing these days — it’s sort of like how the guy who works at a pizza joint doesn’t want to order a pizza for dinner when he gets home. But I do get so see all kinds of conditions on the river, and through my angling contacts and various riverkeepers, and judging by the changes in weather pattern, I usually know how good fishing is or isn’t.
What are some of the ideal conditions for shad fishing?
When the water temps start to hover around around 10-14 C [50-57 F], the fish start coming in. If you get a three-day warming trend and the water climbs to about 16-18 C [61-64 F], the fish will move in and start spawning. By the end of that warming period, a lot of them will be doing their thing. At the same time, they are responsive to the temperature, and if it drops again, the fish will back off for a bit.
The males come in first, and then the females later. Here in the Blackwater River and the lower York, they males will show up and stage below the fall line until the water temperature, moon phase, and water level are right. When the water level gets up and is high, it makes it easier to move through the fall line zones and move through the rocks to get into the ideal position.
What’s historically the peak of the shad run?
The peak date is historically right around the time of Shad Planking — the third Wednesday in April. The hickory shad and alewife migrations are the earliest in the year. Then you get the American shad and bluebacks, and then the striped bass, which of course are also feeding on the herring.
The migration will start a little bit early further south. They all have to go through the Oregon Inlet and have to swim up through the sounds. There’s a progression from there. In our drainage, which is the Chowan River and the northern rivers of North Carolina that drain into Albermarle Sound, they’ll show up a bit earlier than rivers in Virginia, and the Chesapeake rivers will follow. In Virginia, they’ll show up in the James first, and then in sequence in the the York, Rappahannock, and Potomac.
Historically on the James, they used to run all the way up to Lynchburg, but the numbers just aren’t there anymore and that’s a long way swim. It takes a long time to swim all the way up from Newport News to the fall line in Richmond — probably a week, if not more. If they get a cold snap during the run, they might stop around Surry or Williamsburg, for example, and hang out there for a couple of days. Or if you have a flood event, they might take refuge in a creek and not move up-river until they’re not getting beat up by flooding debris.
How long will they typically stick around for spawning?
The female shad will typically spawn over a 7-8 day period. They don’t like to lay all of their eggs all at once or literally “put all of their eggs in once basket.” Some of their roe will ripen one night, and they release 1/5 or 1/7 of their eggs, and then a new portion will ripen, which they’ll release the next evening — they’ll go through that period for about a week.
They’ll do that from a biological perspective so that if you do get that cold snap — like how we did get that late frost last April — or if you do get that flood event, the spawn is spread out over time. Frost effect the roe like it effect flowers, and they’ll wilt.
When the females are done spawning, they’ll head out but the males will stick around waiting till the bitter end for any new females to arrive. When the water temperature gets into the 20’s C [70s F], that’s about all they can handle, and they’ll head back out — that hot water really stresses them out.
Also, a good thing to note for fishing is that they like to spawn the last couple of hours of daylight, right before dusk.
Could you help me settle a debate about whether shad feed during the spawn?
Hah I wish I knew! I’m not sure anyone really knows. No one has done an extensive, scientific diet study, but I’d imagine they’d have to feed during the amount of time they’re running. If they’re striking at lures, I think they’re striking because they think it’s some type of food. If it is food, they’ll still eat it anyway — it’s not like they’ll strike it and not eat it. Also, they need some kind of energy, a minimum amount of calories just to get up-river and spawn.
You hear about these historic shad runs in the 18th and early 19th century. How healthy is it comparatively today?
Historically, in the early 1900s to mid 1900s, the commercial catch was in the millions of pounds. We’re lucky to have 10,000 pounds today. There’s no commercial harvest of American shad, but there is bycatch of Americans. We can’t sustain Americans shad fisheries; we can’t even sustain recreational fisheries.
What a lot of people also don’t don’t know is that there were two peaks historically. The one in April, and then another one a couple of weeks later with typically the bigger, older fish. Some commercial and recreation watermen will say the second wave almost has a more golden, more robust hue. But who knows, fish can also change color by water conditions.
We don’t have those old age classes in shad anymore. We used have fish that were 9, 10, 11 years old, which was likely that second wave. Today we see fish there are up to 7 years old, and that’s about it. The youngest fish to spawn is 3, and they’re mostly 4 year olds, though you’ll have fish that 4, 5, 6 years old spawning. Unfortunately, they’re mostly dying before they get to 7. This is problematic for the population as a whole, because it takes a few years to get up into that natal year and the spawning population is just smaller.
The Americans population is coming back up though, and the hickories are doing better too.
Do you have any favorite recipes?
Ha, maybe throw out the shad and eat the board? What we typically do at the Planking is cook it on an oak board over an open fire, and the way we cook it, we put so much salt on it that it doesn’t taste like shad, which is probably a good thing.
I’ve had it all kinds of ways: planked, smoked, fried. I like to eat it as an app, to put it on a Ritz cracker. I like the roe the best too.
A guy I used to work with would smoke it in such as way that it would fall of the bone, and that’s probably the best I ever had it. I don’t how he did it, but something about the way he smoked — he had a secret recipe!
One of favorite moments was in the 2014 Senate race when Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner came face-to-face in the pine stand after weeks of bruising TV ads. What are some of your favorite moments over the years from the Shad Planking.
For the longest time, a Virginia Governor was not elected without coming to Shad Planking, and if you didn’t come, you didn’t get elected — of course, that didn’t have a lot to do with the Shad Planking, but it showed that the top candidates came through and it was a lot of fun to see.
One of the more interesting moments was when Bob McDonnell, Terry McAuliffe, Creigh Deeds, and Brian Moran were all running for governor [in 2009]. The four of them came down that year and the lady from Fox News came down. There was a lot of media coverage that year, and it was some of like a referendum on Barack Obama’s first year.
The fun part wasn’t political but the meeting of those guys backstage before they went up. They were all on the same room and it was kind of like, “yea, I want to beat you for Governor, but this is for bragging rights! This is going to be fun beating you!” And then it was almost like a flip switch when they go out on stage - but there was that acknowledgment backstage that “I’m about to roast you!”