Alewife Herring Spawn on the Potomac River, photo by Jay Fleming.
Every year, as they have for thousands of years, fish flood into the Chesapeake. Flowing upstream, against currents that may still contain sheets of drift ice, they return to the streams of their birth. Today, we may look for the iconic osprey’s migration back to the Chesapeake as the first sign of spring. For our Bay ancestors, however, renewal and rebirth was all signified by molten silver rivers of spawning fish- shad, perch, herring, rockfish.
Hickory Shad spawn in Deer Creek off the Susquehanna, photo by Jay Fleming
Most of species are known as anadromous fish- species that normally live in the ocean, but return to to freshwater tributaries to spawn. Often, these tributaries were where they were born, small rivulets of water in brown winter marshes. A few, like perch, are semi-anadromous, living most of their lives in the Chesapeake’s brackish main stem and returning to their natal freshwater birthplace to furiously reproduce.
Yellow Perch Eggs, photo by Jay Fleming
Millions of fish rush upstream to answer the roaring impulse to reproduce. Once they get there, the act itself is surprisingly demure. In the case of shad, for example, female roe shad wait until dusk to release their eggs. These, tender, translucent, and impossibly fragile, drift along the bottom, where the male buck shad swim overhead, lacing them with milt. No mating rituals, no togetherness, no nuturing for shad- in dark water, they achieve the single purpose of their life and depart, bound for the sea. Their progeny, fertilized, plump up and become semi-buoyant. In this vulnerable state, for 5-9 days, they are the basis of the food chain until they move up one rung by breaking from the eggs on the last day as tiny fish, journeying for the ocean.
Yellow Perch spawn on the Magothy, eggs in background, photo by Jay Fleming.
For generations, we have harnessed the bounty of this seething torrent. Chesapeake Native Americans created fish traps, or weirs, from rocks on freshwater rivers to funnel the fish into pools. Colonial fishermen set huge seine nets, encircling the fish in mesh corrals on the flood tide. They hauled the nets, frothing with fish, to the shore, where their springtime catch would be cleaned, salted, packed, and stored away for breakfasts throughout the year.
American Shad Eggs from the Potomac River, photo by Jay Fleming.
The arrival of the spring spawn couldn’t have been better timed. At the desperate tail end of winter, when overwintered stores were depleted to worrisome lows, the fish came. Geese had hardly left the quiet freshwater coves when the pulse of hickory shad and glut herring would rush in. So vital were these fish as salvation from late winter’s terrible teeth that Chesapeake dams were broken and millers killed to allow the fish upstream, food delivered by tide and fin. Shad roe was the original Easter egg.
Many species of anadromous fish have populations impacted by pollution and dams- an unintended side-effect of water power. Though restoration initiatives are seeing some positive changes, the spring spawn is diminished, dimmed. Once the herald of the season’s transition from bitter winter to balmy spring, the return of the fish to the Chesapeake has largely lost its meaning. Yet anadromous fish eggs, vibrating with tiny life, still bounce along the Bay’s bottoms every year.
Even as we hunt for their pastel-dyed counterparts this weekend, think for a moment of the shad, the herring- bearers of a tradition older than our existence, the first sign of spring.
Photos in this post have been generously shared by Chesapeake photographer Jay Fleming. Check out more of his work here: jayflemingphotography.com