KIDS: Shad and Connecticut

{State Symbols Page Header} State Symbols
Shad and Connecticut

  {American Shad} {Connecticut State Flag}  

 Shad and Industrialization  Commercial Connecticut Shad Fishing  Shad Boning 

Shad and Connecticut Native Americans

The spring shad runs in the Connecticut River were an important source of food for native Connecticut tribes. These people built weirs (dams) made of stones, stakes and interwoven branches to trap the fish which traveled up and down the river in much larger number than they do today. Trapped fish were easily removed using nets or spears. Once taken, the fish could be eaten fresh, smoked, or dried for storage. It is said that the Native Americans developed the cooking method known as "planking" which is still used today. Large fillets are fastened to wide planks which are then placed in front of a fire until the fish is cooked. 

Shad and the Connecticut Colony

During the colonial era, shad became an important commercial resource. The Connecticut River provided the largest shad run in New England, and the Connecticut Colonists were quick to take advantage of this resource both for food and for much needed income. Shad meat and roe were eaten fresh locally or sold in the United States and Europe. Exported shad were generally salted and packed in barrels. Shad were also used as fertilizer to enrich the soil on many Connecticut farms before the development of chemical fertilizers. The shad run happened at the same time as the spring planting. 

Shad from Connecticut may also have helped feed soldiers in the Continental Army under General Washington. One of the nicknames for Connecticut is the Provision State because of supplies contributed to the army by Gov. Jonathan Trumbull - the only Colonial governor, incidentally, to support the cause of America's independence from Great Britain. One legend states that a run of American Shad in the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1778 helped to break the winter famine by feeding the troops.

The Town Seal of Haddam is a symbol of how important shad were to Connecticut River towns. Can you find the shad?

{Haddam Town Seal containing shad picture}

Haddam Town Seal

Shad in Connecticut Streams

The Connecticut River is famous for its shad. But shad used to run up many rivers in Connecticut in addition to the Connecticut River. Large shad runs entered the Housatonic River, and went as far upstream as the famous waterfall called "Lover's Leap" in New Milford. Some fish could jump over the falls but shad do not jump well, so the falls stopped their migration. Shad also ran up the Naugatuck River, a tributary of the Housatonic River, probably to beyond Waterbury. A large shad run ascended the Thames River and its two major tributaries, the Shetucket River and the Quinebaug River. In the Shetucket River, shad went all the way up another tributary, the Willimantic River, to its source at Stafford Springs. On the Quinebaug River, the shad went as far north as Putnam, where Cargill Falls blocked their progress. Shad also were found in the Pawcatuck River (Stonington), Hammonassett River (Clinton), Quinnipiac River (New Haven), and probably the Mill (Fairfield), Saugatuck (Westport), and Norwalk (Norwalk) rivers. Back on the Connecticut River, shad went up several tributaries, including the Eightmile River (Lyme), the Salmon River (East Haddam), the Mattabesset River (Cromwell), the Farmington River (Windsor), the Scantic River (South Windsor), and even the Park River in Hartford before we buried it under Bushnell Park! The shad that stayed in the Connecticut River went all the way up to Bellows Falls, Vermont, about 175 miles north of Long Island Sound.

{Connecticut map showing major shad rivers}

Map Showing Existing Connecticut Shad Streams (Select for larger image) 

Presently, shad can be found only in the Connecticut, the Farmington, the Shetucket, and the Pawcatuck with very small numbers of shad occasionally found in the Housatonic, Quinnipiac, and Hammonasset rivers.

Shad and Industrialization

With the growth of new industries and the need for improved manufacturing methods, came the need for sources of power to drive the machines and factories. For towns along the Connecticut River, the readily available power of water was the answer. Dams were built at Turner's Falls and Holyoke, Massachusetts that prevented shad from reaching spawning areas above the dams. Another dam was built in Enfield, Connecticut that further restricted the spawning runs of shad and salmon. In addition, factories along the river dumped their waste products in the river, not understanding the effect of pollution on the fish populations. These two actions, combined with over-fishing, greatly reduced the shad populations, and led to the extinction of the salmon.

Commercial Connecticut Shad Fishing

Commercial shad fishing in Connecticut peaked in the mid 1800's. Three methods were used for commercial fishing - seine nets, traps and gill nets. Those commercial operations still in business today use gill nets. As the size of the spring shad run has declined over the years, so have the number of commercial shad fishermen. There is a real danger that the skills and knowledge acquired by generations of Connecticut shad fishermen will be lost if young people in Connecticut do not discover a passion for this difficult but rewarding business.

Shad Boning

There are about 1300 bones in an adult shad. The ability to remove these bones and leave a product that could be sold to restaurants and fish markets was important to the shad industry. The current shad boning techniques were developed in the early 20th Century. Until recently, shad boners have kept their art a secret, handing down the techniques to trusted family members. Today, in Connecticut, only a few experienced shad boners remain, and the art is being taught to all those who are interested. One of the best and busiest Connecticut shad boners is Dorothy Goss of Westbrook, Connecticut. In addition to being one of the primary shad boners during shad season, Ms. Goss also gives shad boning demonstrations and instruction.

Other past and present shad boners in Connecticut include the following:

  • Judy Machnick, Old Lyme (has been boning shad for 50 years)
  • Camille Root, Old Saybrook
  • Anita Rutty, Old Saybrook
  • Diane Stevens, Old Lyme (30 years)
  • Dawn Root, owner of Old Lyme Seafood (45 years)
  • Geri Root, Old Lyme
American Shad picture used by permission of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the artist, Diane Peebles

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Content Last Modified on 4/27/2012 7:49:10 AM