It’s 10 a.m. on a brilliant spring morning and the Shad King is sweating. It is not from heat. It’s two days before the commencement of “National Shad King Week,” as the King’s wife describes it, a self indulgent time in which he and some of his cronies, the Shad Heads, do little do nothing but fish, sleep, and eat. (Some folks refer to this eight-day stretch as the Forks of the Delaware Shad Tournament, located in Easton, Pennsylvania. It’s the nation’s biggest shad tournament, and there are a stack of those.) But two weeks past the worst flooding to hit the Delaware River in half a century busted up the valley.
When the water crested, litter, silt, and muck floated 4 feet deeply in the Shad King’s river cottage. Nearby boat ramps were swept away. Riverside roads crumbled into piles of macadam and mud-caked concrete. The river was a mess as well as the shad fishing well, the King did not need to think about it.
Afterward, only a week past, a beluga whale showed right up in the river, under the Trenton, New Jersey, bridge, feeding on about a billion shad and herring daily. At the moment it is bringing hordes of onlookers and sending shad fishermen into a tizzy over what measures the tree huggers might take to be able to keep anglers a safe space say, 6 nautical miles from the navigationally challenged marine mammal during the pinnacle of the American shad migration up America’s largest shad river.
And there is more, for into this quagmire steps a writer for a national magazine who has come to see exactly what the Shad King may do, to go where the Shad King says the heart and soul of shad fishing in The United States is, and to try and determine why American shad fishing has a heart and soul in the first place.
Fast, now, since it is already late as well as the Shad King is getting antsy one more add-on to the King’s weights: Now he and his new writer pal are to meet a guy named John McPhee, as well as the Shad King is a bit rattled by the prospect. McPhee is among the very revered natural history writers of our time. A staff writer for The New Yorker magazine along with a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, McPhee won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for his 20-year-long novel job Annals of the Former World.
Not one of that matters as much to the Shad King as the reality that in 2002 McPhee released his 26th novel, The Founding Fish, a tome of 358 engrossing pages parsing every possible detail and aspect of the American shad and American shad fishing. During his research for the novel, McPhee attempted to hook up with the Shad King, but nonetheless, it never occurred. Now it is occurring.
So that the Shad King has a few things on his head. Months in advance of a migratory interval that may change by weeks on either end, he had picked a date for all of us to fish. Now it is late in the early hours, after than he had enjoy it, and we step into his fishing partner’s 19 foot Monark metal skiff, dubbed the Shad II. We push off into the Foul Rift pool, a mile-long slack below the greatest rapid on the longest undammed river in eastern America, a spot where generations of the Shad King’s family have project for the world’s greatest herring, to see what he can do.
Let me tell you up front this will be a fishing report in which comparatively few fish appear, and that you should not hold it against the Shad King. That is not the way he needs it. It is not what he is accustomed to. However, these are American shad, and that’s the way it’s.
The Shad King is Jim Flynn, a 50-year old husband, dad, fisherman, and field manager for a propane gas business from Phillipsburg, New Jersey, tough on the Delaware River. He’s red faced and blue eyed, boisterous and boyish and blissful that he lives in a little town where being a big kid at 50 years of age doesn’t go unappreciated. There may be more dissimilar bodies in relation to the Shad King along with the unassuming, self effacing, professorial John McPhee. It’s, as an example, unlikely that states would ever exist to prompt McPhee to march up and down the Delaware River in an $8 Party City crown adorned with plastic rubies, as the King has done. But for each of their differences, a couple things they share. Each is completely convinced this untrammeled, mainly agrarian swath of northwestern New Jersey is a small bit of heaven on earth. And each is in love together with the American shad.
It may be claimed the American shad presents a greater chance for future increases in recreational fishing chance than just about any other fish. They’re native to eastern rivers from Labrador to Florida, and in the last couple of years along the eastern seaboard, dam removals and new ways of passing migratory fish around dams have opened up thousands of miles of spawning habitat shut to shad for decades.
On the west shore, the fish are not native, but they have been there since 1871, when four milk cans of Hudson River juvenile shad were hauled by railroad and stagecoach and poured into the headwaters of California’s Sacramento River. In the Columbia River states, American shad populations have quadrupled since 1970 and now support an tremendous recreational fishery.
Shad fishing is made on the assumption the fish do not eat anything at all during their migrations from the ocean to the freshwater rivers where they spawn. Instead, American shad are believed to slash and strike out of exasperation, or aggravation, or instinct, or some motive aside from hunger. But here’s the trick: For whatever motive they hit, when they do, the effect could be dramatic. The same morphological characteristics that enable shad to swim for an average of 2,000 miles each year give them lots of means to trip up a reel haul.
They sport the deeply forked tail of tuna, bonefish, and other speedsters. A flat, compressed profile slices through current like a scimitar, and when a shad turns its deep, wedge shaped body broadside to the current, the fisherman has to fight the force of the whole river, as well as the fish understands it. Sounding or jumping, American shad are, as an old saw goes, “pound for pound, the fight’n st fish about.”
Which is an excellent thing, as the uneven pound of shad is all we are going to get.
Foul Rift is a half mile jog of ledge-slashed haystacks, souse holes, and standing waves. At certain amounts, jet-drive outboards can decide their way through, but not now. We embrace the “Pennsie side,” as the King describes it, worming our way along boulders silt smashed to a baby-smooth finish. Tufts of leaves, trash bags, as well as a set of gym shorts are tangled 12 feet high in the trees. My stomach knots at the notion of so much water thundering through.
We anchor up at a solid eddy line, what the Shad King calls a “backwash,” and he and his pal Tim Clymer go to work on the downriggers. McPhee draws a finger through a transparent plastic bait carton and ties on a little dart pink and white with a tail of pearl Flashabou. He snips off the tag end of line with the scissors from a Leatherman tool.
To get a shad, based on McPhee, the fisherman should have the ability to read the river like a whitewater kayaker. Below rapids, where the roiling, fleet currents unspool downstream from the stone, eddy lines form on either side of the pool. Pods of shad hold beside the seam, and whether the angler is throwing or fishing with downriggers, eddy lines are where the action is. When there’s activity. In great years, McPhee tells me, the fish are everywhere. Most years, yet, it is a game of patience, often giving way to outright endurance. “It appears like I can spend a month waiting for something to occur,” he says, “then you can have your entire season in a day or two.”
His right leg is crossed over his left, forming a ledge on which he rests his hands, twitching the rod tip to life every couple of seconds. “That is all it takes,” he clarifies, “only a little took…took every now and then.”
But it is not working. Not now, not here. We get the occasional shad, but none are too big or feisty. None are showy or jumpy like shad are imagined to be. They soar for some minutes, but not in a way that makes memories. It is quite a while between fish, but it is still early in the day. There is time.
To fill it, Clymer describes the genesis of the Shad King’s royals. In 1998, the King won the Branches of the Delaware Shad Tournament with a 7.23 pound dollar fish. Winning this is the regional equivalent of coming home with all the Heisman Trophy; even the woman in the convenience store checkout understands who wins, and she is able to probably quote a summary of the past decade’s victor. “It is huge around here,” Clymer says. “I am telling you folks covet that tournament.” The following winter, the King’s cronies at deer camp dubbed him the “Shad King” and held a coronation service with a low-cost celebration crown. It was an adolescent prank, fueled by deer-camp spirits and small town camaraderie. It got better.
That spring, the Shad Heads solicited buddies to pony up $10 apiece to put an advertisement in the neighborhood newspaper, complete with a picture of the crowned king using a fishing rod scepter, wanting the Shad King “Good Luck from your True Subjects” for the next tournament. It was made to be a “failure” the Shad Heads’ term for good natured ribbing or practical jokes, including drilling a hole in a boat angler’s pee can but Flynn seeks the limelight like a shad seeks shade, and he is able to take as great as he gives.
Including the name, the peak, along with the advantages of local notoriety, he became the darling of tournament supporters and turned into the go to interviewee for reporters covering shad fishing. He motored up and down the river in his peak. He brought the focus of McPhee. “If we had known it was really going to be this large,” Clymer says with a laugh, “we had have thrown that crown in the trash can.”
However, the King isn’t delivering now, when the spotlight is on. McPhee attempts to ease the suffocating pressure of no fish. “My being here does not bode well,” he offers, gently. “I consistently get the fewest fish. I do not understand what it’s.”
“What it’s,” says the King, “is that these aren’t fish. They are damn shad.”
“Yes,” McPhee says. He is quiet for a very long minute, as if that is all there’s to say about it. Took…took.
We give the place 45 minutes of effort, shifting depths, spoon colours, spoon sizes, the orientation of the boat in the current. Four guys in a shad boat on the Delaware in springtime should not have to work this hard for fish.
“People take off their week of holiday to fish for shad here,” McPhee says, shaking his head.
“This is actually the Yankee Stadium of shad fishing.”
The Shad King’s shoulders slump.
We motor downstream, to a wide place in the river beneath the 500-foot-tall smokestacks and cooling towers of Pennsylvania Power & Light’s Martins Creek plant. Itis a surreal feeling, fishing for wild fish in the shadow of such a monolithic industrial existence. Clymer is on the accelerator, seeing the depth amounts on the fishfinder. The Shad King is on his knees in the bow, a white anchor line snaking through his hands. He understands with precision where he needs the boat and keeps one eye on the shoreline for location, however he is somewhat disabled ever since the flooding torn away the fridge that long ago had lodged itself against a tree just opposite the submerged ledge. Now it is about the amounts telegraphing the underside profile.
“Eleven feet,” Clymer drones. “Eleven. Ten. Ten.”
“Keep it coming,” says the King. “I need it up on the ledge.”
“Ten. Ten. Ten. Nine.”
“Now. Close her down.”
In his head, the King says, he envisions the river’s bottom as the shad find it. They’re on the run, moving with an urgency that shoves a fish from the deep ocean to river shallows hundreds of miles from the sea. The buck shad are “squirrelly,” and they will venture into shallower water. Not so the roes. “I believe they keep their noses buried in the river channel and just go.”
He describes the strategy. The Foul Rift pool is deep, 20, 40, 60 feet in spots, but at the head of the pool there is a change. The water begins to foam. The fish can hear, or feel, or perception in how that fish perception the world in a way fishermen can not comprehend, the rapids forward. Below the power plant the river channel snakes away from the Jersey bank to the Pennsie side, and so do the fish. Right there the bottom begins to grow, and so do the fish. “We need metal within their faces right as they bump up the ledge.”
McPhee looks out over the wide, almost featureless run. He deadpans: “I do not see how we can miss.”
Five seconds after the Shad King’s stick bends deep. “Right as I was feathering it over the ledge.” He nudges me and crooks a finger at me, in the pole, at the spot where the line vanishes into the Delaware, grinning, a red faced cherub of a guy for whom it is all a little better now.
Clymer is right there for him. “Do not get all puffed up. One is not the magic number,” he says. I am able to hear the air leave the King. “You will understand when we have them dialed in.”
So we wait for the following fish expecting, wishing, attempting to think the shad just landed was the first or second or 50th in a phalanx of migrating shad that at this very minute expanses from Foul Rift to the ocean. We are greeted with nothing. An hour of nothing. Two. It is not a poor approach to spend a pretty spring day. But I am happy I am not the Shad King.
It is two o’clock now, and before every cast, every time, without fail, the Shad King first checks the actions of his flutter spoon. He examines it for flotsam defiled in the cracked ring or draped over the willow blade. He dunks it in the river current beside the boat, quiet for now, ensuring it flutters just so. Because when the spoon is fluttering, so also is the glowing gold long shanked hook hand-soldered to it. And it’s that agitated, quivering activity of the gold hook, the King is convinced, that entices the shad to hit.
“Not the spoon itself?” I inquire.
“Nah,” says the King.
“What about colour?” McPhee queries. Most shad fishermen take spoons in at least a dozen color combinations, all hand-painted, all needing multiple layers of pigment and clear coating and glitter. Pink-on-white. Orange. Chartreuse-on-green. Some are speckled, others striped. “Does colour appear to really make a difference?”
“Nah,” says the King. “It is the flutter of that gold hook. The shad simply can not take it.”
However, the shad are tight lipped despite the flutter spoons fluttering all around our boat. In two hours of fishing, our four poles take three fish. The slow fishing means long intervals of silence in the boat. We haven’t been fishing together long enough for the quiet to feel completely comfortable, not like men such as the King and Clymer, who occasionally fish for 14 hours a day, day after day, within a stick’s length of each other. The occasional shad yanks the line, but these fish leave in their own wake silences that beg to be filled by something other fish, rather. Rather, they are filled by the whine of the downrigger wires vibrating in the current.
In McPhee’s shield, this really isn’t his preferred method of fishing for shad. He’s an advocate of the standard shad dart, offered to shad in the conventional way, meaning throw across the current, together with the river’s flow swinging the dart into the eddy lines underneath.
That is how most anglers got shad for decades. But over the past 15 years or so, downriggers have changed the landscape of American shad fishing, at least in the Delaware River. Only the day before, I Had stood in George “Pappy” Magaro’s 19-foot skiff, on a present seam in the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers. (This is really the “branches” of the Delaware; the Lehigh was long considered a division of the principal stalk.) The boat bristled with downriggers. Magaro is a retired Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, fire fighter, festooned with tats and turquoise jewelry, subtle as a gaff. He pours untold hours in the Delaware River Shad Fishermen’s Association, of which he’s the present president, and fishes this very same present seam 60, 70, 80 days in a season.
For quite a while, Magaro told me, it was shad darts and nothing but. Then someone showed up with a downrigger. “My catch rate went up 70 percent,” he said. Lots of folks do not enjoy downriggers, he declared. “They believe it is cheating. But fishfinders and downriggers set your lure right where the fish are. Since when is that cheating?”
In just one place in McPhee’s opus to the American shad does he mention the idea of a downrigger. It’s in a passage about one of the Delaware’s amazing icons of shad fishing, Buddy Grucela, a man who grew up near Foul Rift. In 1982 Grucela composed The First Guide to Better Shad Fishing on the Delaware River. A guy who not only made his own shad darts but had a machinist custom make his own shad-dart style, Grucela “spurns downriggers,” McPhee wrote. McPhee subsequently noted, not so discreetly, “He prefers to do the fishing himself.”
Now it is four o’clock, and we are all a little antsy. We have been anchored in a fresh area for just two hours as well as the single activity really has been a fish lost when the downrigger didn’t release. If I Had had X ray vision to see through his hat brim, I’m certain that I ‘d have seen McPhee wince. A guy using a fish post in his hands may have landed that fish.
We pull anchorman to attempt something new. Foran hour we have saw a small boat filled with Herberts, another stalwart Foul Rift family, pull in half a dozen shad by trolling flutter spoons up the pool, inching slowly upcurrent. With each Herbert fish I really could feel the noose tighten on the Shad King.
Then, abruptly, as McPhee reels in his line, his pole point bows. The King strains, but sadly it is not a fish. McPhee’s line has rolled ingloriously across the downrigger equipment. I reach over to unbraid the snarl, as well as the line breaks. I roll the free line around my left hand, bringing the dart back to the boat, and that is when a silver-green contour slashes toward the surface. After we have spent hours examining bottom contours and dialing in downriggers to set our baits within a foot or a couple of the channel bottom, a fish porpoises in 14 feet of water to get a shad dart a foot deep? Why would a shad do that? What is it doing this close to the surface?
A only 6 or 7 feet divide me from the fish, so there is no line reach to work with, nowhere the shad can go. The King and Clymer hoot in the scene, and for perhaps 15 seconds I fight the fish by hand, no downrigger to blunt the electrical jolt of every spike, no limber pole to take the brunt of each speedy change of direction when the fish turns its fat, hatchet-head abdomen into the current.
Shad have notoriously delicate mouths, and I understand the papery membrane that holds the hook will not be able to endure this type of mistreatment. Itis a great line shad fishermen walk whenever they catch a fish. “Do not horse it!” angling partners cry, unhelpfully, understanding full well that the man with the stick in his hand is trying his level best to prevent simply that. I urgently attempt to unwrap several coils of line to feed the green fish a little slack, cautious not to jerk or pull too hard, and that is when the line goes slack, the shad vanishes, along with the dart dangles behind the boat. I groan. But there, for several seconds, I Had come as close as anyone could to reaching out as well as touching a live, migrating American shad with as few physical intermediaries as possible. It left me momentarily speechless.
Not so the Shad King. He’s beside himself. “Craziest thing I Have ever seen!” he hollers. Clymer whoops with glee. When I peek at McPhee, he’s behind his hat brim, gently running a finger through his bait carton, ciphering the future.
At seven the trollers pick up an other shad. We get nothing. The sun coming through the trees on the Pennsie side is stunning, filtering through young leaves. Birds start to sing their evening tunes a mourning dove, a meadowlark. We get nothing. Minutes, a half hour, tick by. A peacock crows from someone else’s backyard. Clymer looks at the King. “That is typically the sign that it is preparing to break free,” he says. We get nothing. My heart’s breaking for the Shad King. I understand these men can get fish. The King and Clymer have captured fish so quickly they could not keep the downriggers locked and loaded. They have got 40, 50 fish in a day and much more. They have won dailies, won the tournament. A sparrow sings. Nothing. The sun drops down to another branch. Nothing. Arms crossed, hands in pockets, McPhee is in the right hand seat, jigging his shad dart halfheartedly with a lump of the knee.
The Shad King shrugs. “Sorry there were not many fish. I wish we might have got a few more.” It is the shoe-shuffling apology every fisherman has heard and offered.
But nobody’s holding anything against anyone. No one is here to dethrone the Shad King. And that is when it happens to me that this is actually the heart and soul of shad fishing. Not the great days, when you work double hookups for long periods of time as well as the paint and glitter and depth do not matter. This really is when the heart and soul of shad fishing regards the surface when the fish are in the river and you’re on it and the water temperature is just right along with the light is low and shadiness is creeping and the peacock crows and all day long you’ve got next to nothing. And then nothing in any respect. And still, you fish.
McPhee looks truly happy to have spent a half day on the water, in the organization of a team of rabblerousers rather unlike himself, ribbing each other with inside jokes.
“I have been to the Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River, where 5 million shad pass through every springtime.” McPhee tells the story gently, as an aside to the falling light as well as the hush of fishermen with few fish to discuss.
The Shad King’s thin eyebrows arch over his spectacles. “Five million shad?” Lately, the Delaware has hosted somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 migrating fish.
“Oh, yes. Individuals in this area of the state seldom consider shad being in the Pacific Northwest, but the Columbia is home to the greatest run of shad on earth.”
“Five million shad?” says the Shad King. Itis a figure he appears to have difficulty grasping. It is not an issue of unbelief, not that he believes it can not perhaps be accurate, or that McPhee is false or dishonest. But standing in the boat dubbed the Shad II, afloat on the Yankee Stadium of shad fishing, this guy whose life revolves around shad he only can not get his head around a river full of 5 million shad.
“Five million. Did you hear that, Timmy?” He develops quiet. It’s a quite un-King-like instant. But then he reaches down to examine his flutter spoon and to pluck away part of an oak catkin caught on the shank. It is simply the magnitude of a mustard seed, but it is simply sufficient to foul the flutter. And whether there are 5 million fish in the river or the fading hope of an individual one, the Shad King is taking no risks.
Winning the Branches of the Delaware Shad Tournament is the regional equivalent of winning the Heisman Trophy.
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McPhee (left) and Jim Flynn prepare for a day on the Delaware River.
Flynn (standing) has adopted the modern shad technique of utilizing downriggers. McPhee chooses the traditional approach of projecting shad darts.