It’s the most plentiful fish in the Columbia River, it tastes great, its eggs are a famous delicacy on the East Coast and fisheries officials want to get it out of the river - yet almost no one is fishing for it.
It’s shad, a non-native species more than abundant in the Columbia River. However, very few people are interested in catching them, explained Bruce Crawford, assistant director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Imported to San Francisco Bay from the Atlantic seaboard in 1868, shad quickly colonized the Pacific Coast’s rivers and streams and became especially well adapted to the waters of the Columbia. Like salmon, it spends its adult life in ocean waters, then returns to freshwater rivers and streams to reproduce.
The shad in the Columbia have adapted so well that they have become the most abundant fish in the river - so abundant that they literally clog fish ladders at the dams, making it difficult for salmon and steelhead to get through.
This year’s run is just beginning. In 1990, as many as 4 million shad were counted at Bonneville, said Wolf Dammers, a fish biologist who manages the shad fishery. And the numbers continue to grow.
“It’s one species that is not having any problems right now,” Dammers said. “These guys are just taking off. They’ve adapted very well to the slack pool habitat created by dams.”
Little is known about this fish and how it impacts other species on the Columbia. A study of shad impacts was proposed to the Bonneville Power Administration a few years ago, but was never funded.
“There are so many shad in the fishways, they might slow down or interfere with the upstream passage of the adult salmon or steelhead,” Dammers said. “But the bigger concern is that the interactions have never been studied.”
Because they are a non-native species, Crawford says the state agency would like to see them out of the river. They have been and still are commercially fished, though only to a limited extent. As far back as 1938, Crawford said, catch records indicate that 110,000 pounds were caught in the Columbia.
“There are millions of shad in the Columbia,” Crawford said. “We’ve been trying to get people interested in harvesting shad for some time, but they are not being utilized to the extent we’d like.”
An annual commercial shad fishery occurs just upstream from Washougal and near Bonneville Dam.
The fish spawn in a shallow reef area and can also be caught in the deeper water in late May and June.
The shad are intermingled with threatened and endangered salmon, making management difficult. “The problem is how to allow the harvest of shad, which are abundant, and minimize the impacts on listed fish,” said Dammers.
The market for shad is mostly for the roe, or eggs, which is why the fishery got started years ago. At times, the carcasses are sold as crab bait, but there are recent hints that a market for the shad carcasses is available in Asia if the fish can be produced in the volumes that would make it worthwhile for importers.
Columbia River tribes have treaty rights to dip-net the fish. In the last couple of years, they’ve been working on developing a dip-net fishery by using the shad’s habit of gathering near the fish ladders, Dammers said.
Because salmon and steelhead swim deeper and shad swim toward the surface, salmonids are not impacted. The dip-net fishermen just skim the shad off the top as they exit the ladder.
“They did real well last year and have developed a local buyer,” Dammers said. “They are interested in expanding that.”
Sport fishing has picked up since a pamphlet was put out by WDFW a few years ago. About two to three dozen boats anchor in the current to fish for shad.
They are good fighters, putting their strong, flat bodies to good use in the current. They are good for family fishing, easily caught with shinny spoons, shad flies or beads and hooks. They’re bony, but the flesh is good.
Shad roe is a delicacy and Dammers noted that some of the hatchery workers in the area can them with a little smoke flavor.