Put aside your smartphones, your fitness watches, your quartz clocks. There are better ways of knowing the proper time, at least for a few important things. When the wild turkeys
Put aside your smartphones, your fitness watches, your quartz clocks. There are better ways of knowing the proper time, at least for a few important things. When the wild turkeys start to gobble, or the first wildflowers emerge from the leaves along the forest floor, it’s time. When that first warm February day has you digging in the basement for your box of stored T-shirts, it’s time. Time to go shad fishing.
Spurred by warming waters and lengthening daylight hours, hickory shad arrive as rivers swell with early spring rains, giving the fish access to their spawning grounds far from the coast. They come by the scattered dozens at first. Then by the thousands, and then the tens of thousands. You don’t need a smartphone reminder to know when the time is right. Just a sharp ear tuned to the wilds, and an angler’s heart.
Hickory shad are one of North Carolina’s eight anadromous fish species — that is, fish who lead lives of epic proportion. River-hatched, they spend most of their existence in the open sea, until they reach spawning age, when they often return to the place of their birth. It’s not fully understood how adult fish recognize their natal waters, but research suggests that each river carries a distinctive signature, a combination of chemical composition, current flow orientation, and other factors that scientists believe fish can read like a fingerprint. Triggered by rising water temperatures, they storm upriver. From February to June, nearly every waterway in eastern North Carolina hosts these incredible migrants.
And I meet them in the midst of their peregrinations, my feet planted on the bow of a johnboat, fly rod in hand.
My favorite of the lot is the hickory shad, sort of an outcast in the fishing world. These creatures are of yeoman lineage, to say the least, in the same family as fish more commonly thought of as bait down South. You can eat a hickory shad, but you will work at the task, as they are bony and oily. At 12 to 20 inches long, hickories are smaller than their cousins, the American shad. Found from Florida to Maine, hicks are most common from the Carolinas to Connecticut. And when the hickory shad run is on in the Roanoke River, there can be so many fish in the water that you wonder how there’s room for the water itself.
The river runs under the boat with a subtle swiftness. Look across toward the far bank, where white-barked sycamores hold up the blue sky, and it can appear almost languid. But the thrum of the river’s flow against the metal hull suggests its power and velocity.
I cast the line across the current and let the fly sink. To find hickory shad, you must think like a hickory shad: Had you swum the 130 miles from the mouth of the Roanoke at Albemarle Sound to the fall-line rapids at Weldon, you’d be pretty tuckered out. You’d be looking for a place where the going is a bit easier — slack waters and the slower waters behind boulders, behind islands, along the current seams where creeks spill into the broad river, anything that breaks the river’s powerful flow.
On the far end of the boat, my buddy Mike Riddick mirrors my casting: chuck the sinking line cross-current, let the river sweep it downstream, pull it back to the rod in little fits and starts. So far, we have fished half a dozen spots. Nearly everywhere, the hickory shad are willing.
And nearly everywhere, there are signs that spring is coming, is on the move, that its first tentative, waves have already arrived. I may love these harbingers as much as I love the fishing. There are fire bursts of redbuds in the woods. Louisiana waterthrush probing bankside nooks and crannies for nesting sites with a water view. The water is filled with fish, the air with birds. In the early light, the young leaves of the river canopy are nearly effervescent.
I wish that every North Carolinian would do this at least once, stand in a small boat tethered to a broad river as spring nudges winter aside. Not because I’m proselytizing for the restorative properties of fishing, but because this is one of the rare endeavors in which all of natural North Carolina melds and flows into a single expression, a single entity. The boat hull vibrates with 12,000 cubic feet per second of river water rushing past. It is like the pulse of the land itself, a respiration of the turning season. In the river’s flow are the eroded bits of the Blue Ridge and the glint of Appalachian mica, the tannin of untold numbers of leaves along creek and swamp and forest.
Shad are compelled by the notion of home, prodded by instinct and Earth’s vernal turning.
And soon, the millions of eggs of all those legions of fish. That’s the answer to the great riddle of why: Why do these fish undertake such a journey? Pushing against the river’s flow, they find the perfect water depth, the perfect rocky bottom, the perfect distance from the sea. And there they spawn. When the eggs hatch, the larvae hitch a ride with the river, flowing downstream, and, day by day, they transform from larvae to fish. By the time they reach the sea, they’ve matured into the next generation of travelers whose entire lives point to a coming spring when they will return home.
Again, and ever, it’s all about time. To meet them, I need neither calendar nor watch. The fish are compelled by the notion of home, prodded by instinct and Earth’s vernal turning. In the spring, on the Roanoke, they can’t help but respond. They will find their way here.
And I know the feeling.