Shad Springtime Return
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One of the annual signs of spring is the return of the shad coming up the river. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote that “The peach come into blossom from March 9 to April 4; the Cherry from March 9 to April 13; The Tick Appears from March 15 to April 2; Asparagus first comes to table from March 23 to April 14; and The Shad arrive from March 28 to April 18.” It is an old saying that along with the arrival of the shad, the shad bush comes into bloom, or as some say, “The shad come to spawn when the shad bush blooms.”
Indigenous tribes and arriving settlers found the spring rivers like the Connecticut teeming with fish including shad. In Virginia, Captain John Smith wrote of “an abundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water . . . as for want of nets, our barge driving amongst them, we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”
In Gill, Josiah D. Canning, the Peasant Bard (1816-1892), romanticized the fishers at the Falls in poems and speeches. [See page 19 in Riverside: Life Along the Connecticut.] In his “The Shad-Fishers” Canning advances the enthusiasm for the running of the shad in May:
All in the merry month of May,
When snowy shad trees blossomed gay,
To tell the fisherman the time,
When fish were plentiful and prime.
Writing about “Olden Times at Turners Falls” in the 1892 Greenfield Gazette, Josiah D. Canning wrote that a Gill Octogenarian had told him about drawing the seine [net] at the mouth of Unadilla Brook in Gill Center with “abundant success.” ”The fishing seasons attracted farmers from the surrounding towns and region to the Falls for their supply of fish. They came with carts and wagons and took them off for the purpose of salting for the year’s use. Two cents each shad or three “Bungtown coppers,” was the established price” of what was nicknamed “Gill Pork.” As he continues in his well known poem,
. . . I’ve heard gray-headed worthies say,
Not only fishermen, so wet
With sweeping seine and scooping net,
But other folk would muster there
As now they gather at a fair.
From all the region round about
They came, the gentleman and lout;
The yeoman, whose spring work was done,
Resolved to have one day of fun;
The peddler with his gew-gaws fine,
And ballads, dog’rel, not divine; . . .
A motley crowd of beings, wishing
To see each other and the fishing.