National Geographic : 1947 Mar
Shad in the Shadow of Skyscrapers BY DUDLEY B. MARTIN With Illustrations from Photographs by Staff Photographer Luis Marden AT THE very threshold of America's big gest city there flourishes a commercial fishery that does an annual business of a quarter of a million dollars. This "big busi ness" is done entirely in the few weeks each spring when the shad find the Hudson River tempting and swarm in from the ocean for spawning. Here is one of those old aspects of New York which help make the ever-changing city tolerable to its more rustic residents and fas cinating to those who enjoy exploring its byways. For the most part, however, New Yorkers pay little heed to this remnant of a day when the city fed itself from its own lands and waters. If they do cast a second glance, they are likely to be as mystified as was the young lady who, homeward bound to New Jersey over the George Washington Bridge one afternoon in wartime, asked a friend if those poles sticking out of the water down there didn't have something to do with stopping enemy submarines! No wonder she was mystified. Little bally hoo attends this enterprise carried on in the shadow of the world's tallest buildings. The shad men would just as soon stay in the shadow, for, hard and honest though their toil is, some of them seem to feel that the netting of fish in the world's most impor tant harbor survives only by virtue of oblivion. Shad Harvested for Some 300 Years But the Hudson River shad fisherman is about as much a poacher among us as the American Indian. For some 300 years white men have worked these watery furrows for such harvests. One early account states that "the river teemed with the finest fish, among which was the shad and many kinds scarcely less delicious ..there were plenty of sturgeon, which the Christians do not make use of, but the In dians eat them greedily . . . herring were in myriads." Another surviving account of the Hudson in early days concerns the voyage of Richard Wells, an Englishman who traveled up the lower Hudson in 1769. The journal entry remarks the unrestricted fishing, stating: "Mr. Wells bought Ten small Rock Fish for 12 cop pers....atBeekmanManor...2shad cost 6d. . . these Fishermen draw their nets oftener than ours, not stopping between the Draughts." If the colonial shad men kept up anything like the pace of their present-day successors, they were busy, to say the least. Water Front Bustles with Preparations In the middle of March, about the time the Carolinas are getting in most of their shad harvest (some families still salting away the fish in barrels, as in olden days), the Hudson's fishermen start preparing for their turn, their interruption of the life cycle of this river-as cending fish. By then the Atlantic coast shad season is about half finished in point of time, for north Florida folk begin sifting the St. Johns River for the greenbacks in December. In volume, however, the season is just getting going, for Chesapeake Bay, its tributaries-among which is the Potomac-and the Hudson come in quickly, one after the other, as winter gives way to spring. Nowhere else in their appearances in thirty odd rivers of the North Temperate Zone-as far up as the St. John, in New Brunswick, and even the St. Lawrence-do the shad, or rather man's efforts to capture them, afford as striking a contrast with the environment as in the Hudson. (Some persons, espe cially mariners, call the lower Hudson the North River, a relic of Dutch days when the Delaware, at the other end of New Nether land, was the South River.) Along the New Jersey water front, amid some of the busiest commerce and largest in dustries of the metropolitan area and directly across the river from the teeming West Side Highway, the shad men dig from the low-tide slime of the river bed the 60-foot hickory poles which they interred for preservation ten months before. On the beach under the bluffs whose twenty miles of traprock are famous as the Palisades, they see to the gill nets, the iron anchoring rings, and other gear, or calk the boats and build the shacks which are to be bases for operations in the short weeks ahead. The sturdy poles, shaved, pointed, and re plenished (for there's a heavy loss to the ele ments and river traffic), are now set out in the river in rows as straight as possible, the better to snare the shad as they head upriver past the Empire State, Chrysler, and other spires.