THERE ARE A FEW clues as to why it's called Shadfest in the fair-like festivities that are the highlight of this annual rite of spring in the sweet little town of Lambertville, N.J. Some folks have only the vaguest notion that it's all about a fish: the American shad, Alosa sapidissima.
There's a tent near the bridge that sells shad sandwiches. (Just for the record, it's better than the bluefish and mackerel that it's often compared to and the cooks last Saturday used a flavorful rub that made it even better!)
Then on the banks of the Delaware, Lewis Fishery does a demonstration of seine fishing for shad on both days of the Shadfest.
On Saturday, when they hauled the net in, there were plenty of fish: various bass, catfish, something called Gizzard shad (much less prized) but only one shad.
Lewis Fishery writes a note about each day's shad fishing which you can find here.
It makes for interesting reading, and shows that most days yield more shad than Saturday. In fact, sometimes there's a beaver or two caught in the net, which must be interesting.
For about two months in early spring, the usually ocean-dwelling fish make their run to breed in fresh water. But how many and when will depend on water temperature and also on how deep the river is running. Too shallow or too cold seems to affect when the fish make their run upriver. For about two months in early spring, the usually ocean-dwelling fish make their run to breed in fresh water. But how many and when will depend on water temperature and also on how deep the river is running. Too shallow or too cold seems to affect when the fish make their run upriver. In the past when more of the river was clean, the fish would spawn further south, and once they had spawned would make the return run to the ocean. These days, the fish have further to swim to get to clear water and since they don't feed on this run they are so depleted that they don't have the energy to make the return run.
The annual shad run from the ocean up the Delaware was spring bounty for Native Americans, then colonists and then the varied populations that lived near the river. Until the river grew so polluted that the fish — looking for clear water — didn't make the run, or maybe didn't survive it.
The Shadfest began in 1981 as a celebration of the return of clear water and the return of the shad.
The Delaware River Basin Commission also celebrates Shadfest and pitches a tent on the banks of the river near the fishing to talk to fairgoers about the river. Its work over the decades has been targeting pollution and improving water quality. Some information about it, and shad and the river can be found here.
For a great read about shad take a look at John McPhee's The Founding Fish. Curious title, eh?