American Shad (Hickory Shad)

Life History

The American & Hickory shad, a schooling and highly migratory species, is a silvery fish with a row of dark spots along its side and sharp saw-like scales or "scutes" along its belly. Shad are anadromous fish that spend the majority of their life at sea and only enter freshwater in the spring to spawn. Historically, American shad probably spawned in virtually every accessible river and tributary along the Atlantic coast from the Bay of Fundy, Canada to the St. Johns River, Florida. However, blockage of spawning rivers by dams and other impediments and degradation of water quality has severely depleted suitable American shad spawning habitat. Shad are river-specific; that is, each major river along the Atlantic coast appears to have a discrete spawning stock. Presently, the Connecticut, Hudson, and Delaware Rivers are the primary systems that support viable American shad stocks. Spawning can occur as early as November in southern states and as late as July in New England and Canada. Depending on their geographical location, shad may spawn once and die, or they may survive to make several spawning runs per lifetime. "Repeat" spawning in American shad differs according to latitude. Shad that spawn in more northerly rivers may survive to spawn again; however, most American shad native to rivers south of Cape Fear, North Carolina, die after spawning.

Two examples of American Shad

Spawning American shad females (ages 5 and 6) broadcast a large quantity of eggs (30,000 - 600,000) into the water column that are fertilized by males (ages 4 and 5). Spawning usually occurs over gently sloping areas with fine gravel or sandy bottoms. After spawning, adult American shad return to the sea and migrate northward to their summer feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine. Here, they primarily feed on zooplankton and small fishes.

Fertilized eggs are carried by river currents and hatch within a few days (3-10). Larvae drift with the current until they mature into juveniles which remain in nursery areas, feeding on zooplankton and terrestrial insects. By late fall, most juvenile shad migrate to near-shore coastal wintering areas. Some juvenile shad will remain in rivers and estuaries up to a year before entering the ocean. Immature shad will remain in the ocean for three to six years before returning to spawn. Adult and immature shad overwinter along the mid-Atlantic coast, particularly from Maryland to North Carolina. With increasing water temperatures in the spring, mature American shad will migrate back to their native rivers to complete their life cycle.

Chesapeake Bay Management

Continuous declines in commercial landings of shad and river herring, as well as other indications of stock declines, prompted the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) to adopt the 1985 Interstate Fishery Management Plan for American Shad and River Herring (Plan). This Plan addressed American shad, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring and recommended general approaches to control exploitation, monitor harvest, implement hatchery programs, and restore habitat. However, it lacked specific management measures (e.g. quotas, bag limits, etc.) and monitoring programs for the states to implement. The lack of stock improvement in most areas and the need to update the Plan following the passage of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act prompted the Commission to amend the 1985 Plan in 1994. Amendment 1 to the Shad and River Herring Fishery Management Plan (Amendment ) was adopted in October 1998. This Amendment replaced the 1985 version and specified new regulations and monitoring programs for American shad fisheries while maintaining the status quo for hickory shad and river herring . The three primary regulatory requirements of the Amendment include: 1) a five-year phase-out of the ocean intercept fishery; 2) the management of in-river fisheries at levels not to exceed F30 for assessed stocks, establishment of Commission-approved recovery plans for all stocks, and the maintenance of existing or more conservative regulations for river herring and hickory shad fisheries; and 3) an aggregate 10 fish daily creel limit in recreational fisheries for American shad and hickory shad, with all jurisdictions maintaining existing or more conservative recreational regulations for river herring. In addition, Amendment 1 established extensive monitoring programs for the collection of fisheries-dependent and independent data for all species. For more information on coastal American shad management, please visit the Commission's website.

In 1989, a Chesapeake Bay Alosid Fishery Management Plan (FMP) was developed for American shad, hickory shad, alewife and blueback herring. The FMP defined problems associated with declining abundance, the potential for overfishing, research and monitoring efforts, and habitat loss and degradation. Since the Commission's 1985 Plan was used as a source document for the development of the Chesapeake Bay FMP, and the Commission's Plan is currently being amended, the 1989 Chesapeake Bay FMP will also be reviewed and revised accordingly once Amendment 1 has been approved. Currently, there has been a moratorium on the harvest of American shad from Maryland's portion of Chesapeake Bay and it's tributaries since 1980, and from Virginia's waters since 1994. Maryland also placed a moratorium on hickory shad harvest in 1981.

Biologists from Maryland Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) - Fisheries Service have been estimating American shad abundance and characterizing this stock in terms of age, length, sex composition, and spawning history in the upper Chesapeake Bay since 1980. Each spring, data are gathered from commercial pound nets located in the Susquehanna Flats and by a hook and line survey in the tailrace below Conowingo Dam. All adult shad captured are sexed, their fork length measured, and scales removed for later age and spawning history analysis. Fish in good condition are tagged with a numbered T-bar anchor tag which is inserted into the dorsal musculature posterior to the dorsal fin at an angle conducive to streamlining. Tagged fish are then recaptured from the two fish lifts operating at the Dam from April 1 until early June . This tag-recapture method of population estimation is then used to determine the number of adult American shad returning to the Conowingo tailrace to spawn. The 2003 population estimate of American shad in the tailrace was 487,073and continued the trend of exponential increases.

Beginning in 1993, MDNR - Fisheries Service undertook a project to restore American shad to selected Maryland rivers through hatchery stocking. Shad populations in most tributaries have not recovered despite a twenty year fishing moratorium primarily due to a lack of adult spawners. By providing hatchery produced adults, naturally reproducing populations of shad will hopefully be restored to rivers that historically supported runs. Several mid-Atlantic states have conducted hatchery programs using adult shad that were captured in gillnets and manually stripped of their eggs and milt. A spawning procedure was developed that reduced stress and impacted as few fish as possible. This new technique actually induced spawning using synthetic reproductive hormones. Restorative stocking can then be accomplished with a limited number of adults collected from Maryland tributaries. With this method, pre-spawned fish are implanted with a time-release luteinizing hormone that causes egg maturation and natural spawning. After implantation, shad are placed in a spawning tank system where they spawn as they do in the wild. Eggs are then reared at Manning Fish Hatchery (Cedarville State Forest) and fish are stocked as larvae and juveniles. This technique was expanded to include hickory shad in 1996 to restore this species. Hickory shad populations have also been depressed and under moratorium since 1981.

The recent increases in the Susquehanna River American shad stock provides an adult broodstock for population restoration in other rivers. All fish produced are marked so hatchery impacts on populations in the stocked rivers can be assessed. Since beginning this restoration program, MDNR - Fisheries Service has stocked 16 million American shad in the Choptank, Patuxent, and Nanticoke. Rivers. Since 1993, hundreds of American shad juveniles have been recaptured each year in the Patuxent and Choptank rivers. These represent the first shad juveniles caught in these tributaries in three decades. Since that time, the proportion of wild juveniles has been increasing each year. In 2003, there were an estimated 45,000 wild juvenile American shad in the Patuxent River nursery area. Adult populations have been surveyed since 1999 in order to document returning hatchery fish. Hundreds of adult American shad have been captured in these surveys. Hatchery fish currently dominate the adult populations, but as recovery progresses, the proportion of wild fish is expected to increase in these migratory populations.

Commercial and Recreational Fisheries

From the late 1800s to mid-1900s, American shad were the most economically valuable food fish harvested from Chesapeake Bay. The American shad commercial fishery in the Chesapeake Bay steadily increased throughout the 1800s and by 1890, had peaked at approximately 7.1 million pounds. In 1896, the Maryland portion of the Bay was the fourth largest producer of American shad in the U.S., with the Susquehanna River and the upper Bay region supporting the largest populations of spawning American shad in Maryland. However, landings declined dramatically throughout the early 1900s to roughly 411,000 pounds in 1937. There was an apparent increase in landings in the 1950s, topping out at 2.4 million pounds in 1957, but soon after, landings began to drastically decrease. By 1979, landings totaled only 24,000 pounds. By 1980, American shad populations in Chesapeake Bay were so severely depleted that a complete moratorium on their capture and sale was initiated and still remains in place today. Historically, American shad have been captured using a variety of commercial gears including haul seine, pound net, anchor gill net, drift gill net, and stake gill net. A limited commercial ocean intercept fishery still exists in the coastal waters off Maryland. Drift gill nets are most commonly used in this fishery. The recreational American shad fishery in Maryland has been poorly documented. It is known that American shad did support a fairly intensive recreational fishery in Chesapeake Bay and many of its tributaries during the late 1950's into the early 1970's. However, as stocks declined this fishery became virtually non-existent. Beginning in the mid-1990's as the upper Chesapeake Bay stocks of American shad began to increase and a viable catch and release fishery reemerged in the Susquehanna River particularly below Conowingo Dam. As restoration efforts continued in other Bay tributaries such as the Choptank and Patuxent rivers small but growing catch and release fisheries have also developed and continue to expand as stocks in these systems increase. . Current Maryland management regulations regarding American shad can be found on our updated commercial and recreational regulations page.

To book your trip aboard Light Tackle Charters call Captain Walt at (410) 845-3231 or email him from this site! Remember, your date is not "booked" until a deposit has been recieved.

Light Tackle Charters
543 Wellington Road
Crisfield, Maryland 21817

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