American Shad in Pennsylvania

American Shad

The American shad played an important part in the history of the United States. It is said that General George Washington's troops subsisted on salted shad from the Delaware River during that long, cold Valley Forge winter in 1776. Similarly, the American shad has played a particularly important role in the history of the Susquehanna Valley. On the Susquehanna River, shad penetrated well into New York on the North Branch and into the West Branch and Juniata rivers as well. In 1881, there were some 40 permanent seine fisheries in the North Branch alone. Each commonly took 300 shad per haul and up to 10,000 shad per day. These fisheries were an integral part of the growing economy of central Pennsylvania.

In 1830, construction of canal dams began cutting off shad runs to the upper portion of the river. However, in years of high water or when ice breached the dams, shad still migrated to upstream spawning areas. The final blow to the Susquehanna shad fisheries was the construction of the four large hydro-dams (York Haven, Safe Harbor and Holtwood in Pennsylvania, and Conowingo in Maryland) between 1904 and 1932. Two early fish ladders, built at Holtwood Dam, failed to pass shad. As a result, the other hydro-dams were not required to build fish passage devices, and shad were completely cut off from their ancestral spawning grounds.


The initial effort in shad restoration began in 1866 with the formation of what is today the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. In fact, shad restoration was the driving force behind the formation of the Commission. The failure of early attempts to provide for fish passage at Holtwood Dam prompted the Commission to accept "in lieu of" payments from the power companies until shad passage technologies could be developed. This provided for a certain amount of money to be paid each year by the power companies to the Commission in lieu of shad being able to migrate upstream.

Shad restoration efforts were renewed in the late 1950s when studies were initiated to determine the feasibility of passing shad over the four largest Susquehanna River dams. Other studies demonstrated that water quality in the river was sufficient to support shad runs.

Life History of the American Shad

The American shad is the largest member of the herring family. Adults commonly reach four to eight pounds. The Pennsylvania record is nine pounds, nine ounces. These beautiful silvery fish are prized by anglers for their sporting qualities. Shad are among the strongest and hardest-fighting of all fish found in freshwater. Their flesh is considered excellent table fare, although it is bony. Shad roe dinners are an annual "rite of spring."

Like all anadromous fish, shad spend most of their life in the ocean and return to freshwater to spawn. Each spring, adult shad migrate into coastal rivers from Florida to Newfoundland. Spawning takes place around dusk at water temperatures from 60 to 65 degrees. A single female shad can produce up to 600,000 eggs, but most average 250,000 eggs.

Spawning often occurs near the surface and is accompanied by noisy splashing as the eager males cavort with the roe-laden females. After fertilization, the eggs sink slowly to the bottom and lodge in the gravel where they remain until hatching takes place in five or six days. After hatching, the fry grow rapidly, feeding heavily on freshwater plankton and aquatic insects. The strong schooling instinct displayed by shad develops early, and by fall, large schools of four- to six-inch juveniles can be seen dimpling the surface as they feed on evening hatches of aquatic insects.

Decreasing water temperatures and cool fall rains trigger a mass downriver migration. By December, the young-of-the-year shad have begun the first step of their vast ocean migration. Once in the open ocean, shad migrate up and down the coast, from their winter range off the mid-Atlantic to their summer range in the Bay of Fundy, off Nova Scotia. In the spring of their third or fourth year, male shad mature, depart from their northward spring migration, and seek their natal river (river where hatched) to repeat the spawning cycle. Females follow, maturing at four to five years of age. Unlike Pacific salmon, not all shad die after spawning. Some shad, particularly in northern rivers, do live to spawn again.

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