Middle Middle Cape Fear
Like salmon, shad has ancestral stirrings in its loins that inspire it to return to the place of its birth to spawn. Unlike salmon that die when the job is done, shad returns to its deep-sea haunts and doesn't yearn for its birthplace again until springtime water temperatures once again trigger its homing instinct.
The siren call they hear from so far away comes from East Arcadia, about 35 miles northwest of Wilmington. But the shad caught a tough break in 1915 when a series of locks and dams was built between Fayetteville and Wilmington, and they found themselves knocking their little heads against concrete in their mad rush to answer the call.
The Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to build the solution to the shad's problem at what is generally known as Lock and Dam Number One. "They were given $12 million to build a rock ramp fish passage," said Kemp Burdick, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch, "and that is essentially a giant ramp of boulders that is built right over Lock and Dam Number One, which is a low dam, and allows fish to swim over the dam and spawn in their traditional spawning areas."
If all goes well the project will be replicated at Lock and Dam Numbers Two and Three, positioned at regular intervals along the 80-mile span to Fayetteville. "It's going to bring back this fishery that's been part of the Cape Fear history and heritage for hundreds of years," he said. "Shad is now at about ten percent of its historic level, and we're going to start to see that come back."
Earnestine Keaton is the organizer of the annual Cape Fear River Shad Festival and the director of the Lower Bladen-Columbus Historical Society. She said she wanted to organize the festival around Easter and "why not invite outsiders." East Arcadia is not a widely visited area except for when the shad run, and she thought the festival might act as a sort of net to catch some of that annual influx of visitors.
"The Shad Festival preserves our heritage. That's what I'm attempting to do. When most people think of shad they think of Lock and Dam Number One."
In early spring the whole town starts looking for its shad. "People start going down to the river and somebody's checking and they're calling, 'Are they running yet?' 'No, the water's too cold. The water's got to be just right.'"
Shad is a member of the herring family, often smallish and usually full of bones, and for that reason shad roe is a prime catch. "The females have all these eggs and nobody wants a buck because a roe—that's what we call the American Shad—when you catch them you can tell because their stomach is big. And you've got two meals. You have the shad and you have the roe."
When she was a child her mama didn't allow her to eat shad. "You had to be an adult because our mama didn't trust us not to choke on the bones." Her mama also didn't allow her children to go fishing in the river because she didn't trust them not to fall in.
During the shad run the community fishes constantly and shares freely. "People who don't get out pretty much get their share of shad. It's a short season and nobody freezes it. You eat shad shad shad."
She said it's known as the founders fish because it fed George Washington and his troops after a fierce winter at Valley Forge.
The festival celebrates the gathering of the people and the cooking of the shad. "Everything was done down at the river. You had these long pans that were handed down and I think they were made by blacksmiths. You had one pan to fry the shad and the other was to cook the roe. We do not invite anybody to cook. It's too important."
It's also sort of tricky because of all the bones. Some of the old-timers advocate baking shad in an oven for three or four hours, and the bones eventually bake away. Then there's "what you call planking. You put it on a wood plank and then it's sort of a big smoked roasted shad."
A shad fishing tournament is part of the festivities, the winners turning in specimens of remarkable size and weight. The preferred fishery method involves nets and Styrofoam floats. Catfish and perch sometimes get caught up in the nets, and she said everybody throws back the eels.