Eric D. Lehman is a contributor to Connecticut Food & Wine. He is the Director of Creative Writing at the University of Bridgeport, and is the author of many books about Connecticut, including A History of Connecticut Wine, the Insiders Guide to Connecticut, and the forthcoming History of Connecticut Food. He lives in Hamden with his wife, poet and author Amy Nawrocki, and their two cats.
This time every spring, when the Connecticut River warms to between 40 and 50 degrees, the shad make their way up to spawn. And the fishermen gather for the sport of catching this exciting fish, gathering around the third week of April and staying for about a month along the banks. Some use specialized tackle, or swear by certain flies or lures, or use the “shad dart” sold by fishing shops along the river, but most throw a line in and find that the shad during their move upstream will hit almost anything.
There are several flies called “Connecticut River Shad Fly,” designed specifically for the fish, as well as dozens of local varieties kept secret or semi-secret by the shad fishermen. It gets fairly chaotic on the shores and in the shallows during the run. Some avoid the big river entirely, and focus on the smaller numbers that struggle up the smaller rivers that empty into the Sound, such as the Hammonasset.
Shad are not common, so if you are going to catch them, you should eat them. The only disadvantage of shad is the number of bones – 1300 – and their refusal to follow a nice pattern from which to fillet. So, boning them is a tricky operation, and can only be done in a certain way.
You need to scale both sides from the tail up, cut off the head, and cut along the belly, being careful in case the delicious roe is inside. If you find a pink sac of roe, remove it carefully and put it aside. Then and only then you can gut the shad as you would any other fish, washing it under water. Make sure your knife is very sharp, and it doesn’t hurt to sharpen it a few times during the next step. Slice along the back, parallel to the backbone, cutting through the ribs to make fillets off both sides. Discard the center piece. Now, remove the ribs that you cut through carefully, running the knife along the edge of the ribs. There should be two parallel bones in the fillet, as well. Carefully find them with your fingers and with the knife slide them to one end or the other.
Done? Not quite. There are still about 10% of the bones inside. But from there on you’re in less danger of stabbing yourself with a bone than you would be with a trout. Still, it’s not for amateurs, and some instruction booklets run to fifty or more steps, so either get a lot of practice this spring, or get your fish pre-boned from one of the local purveyors.
The traditional way to eat them is “planking,” a method best left to professionals, who you will see lining the Connecticut River, especially at the Shad Derby in Windsor, which usually falls on the 3rd Saturday in May. These experts will light huge fires, and nail the large fish to oak planks set at an angle away from the flames. It’s a sight to see, and the smell is always delicious.
Shad used to be smoked or pickled often, and as a relative of the herring, these are perhaps underused applications for such a bony fish. However, if you catch them fresh, either from the river or a local fish market, try stuffing and baking them. Make a stuffing of cracker crumbs (1 cup), melted butter (1/4 cup), salt pepper, onion (1 small minced), and 1 tsp sugar. Mix well and stuff a split, boned shad with tail and head left on. Place in a large baking dish with a rack. Add ½ cup boiling water to the bottom of the pan. Drape bacon slices over fish, bake at 400 for 10 minutes, and turn down heat to 325 for 35 more minutes. Remove the bacon and test fish for doneness.
If you’d rather avoid the stuffing, and go for a cream sauce instead, try the following traditional recipe.
Shad Baked in Cream
½ cup margarine
Juice of one lemon
Salt and pepper
¼ cup dry white wine
½ cup heavy cream
Fresh herbs for garnish
Preheat oven to 350, melt margarine and pour into baking dish. Put fillets in the dish, sprinkle with lemon, salt and pepper. Pour wine over and bake for 20 minutes. Add cream just before serving, and heat but do not boil. Cut fillets in half, garnish with herbs. This recipe serves 8.
The roe is a delicacy that takes a little getting used to, but those who do swear by it. You can broil it by dipping it in melted butter, and putting it onto a greased broiler pan. Broil it for 8-10 minutes, turning once and brushing other side with butter. Season with salt and pepper, serve with bacon, and drizzle with additional melted butter.
It can also be made with bacon directly in a skillet. To do so, put roe in a sturdy skillet, add 1 small diced onion, 1 tsp cider vinegar, 6 peppercorns, 1 tsp allspice, 1 bay leaf, and 1 tsp salt. Pour boiling water over this, cover, and simmer 5 minutes. Remove and let it stand for 10 minutes while bacon is fried. Remove bacon. Take the roe from the water mixture and fry in the bacon fat until crisp on both sides.
Find out more about this wonderful local fish in my upcoming book, A History of Connecticut Food.