American shad is the most popular of six species of shad and herring that live in the Chesapeake Bay. This shad is a handsome fish, with a metallic blue-green back that lightens to silver on the sides with a black spot on the shoulder with several smaller spots trailing behind. The American shad can reach a length of 30 inches, with adult fish weighing 4-8 lbs. They are the largest—and considered the most delicious to eat–of all the shads.
The young shad remained for a short period of time in the waters of their birth, before starting their journey back to the ocean. Unfortunately, the young shad, being very delicate faced a long and dangerous journey. Tens of millions of young shad started this journey, but millions of young shad were killed on their journey each year after being caught in a sluice, fish dam, basket or trap. Even damaging the scales on a young shad in handling was fatal because the immature shad were so delicate.
Imagine the amazement and delight of the first Native American who saw a 'shad run' occur on the Susquehanna River thousands of years ago. Shad runs occur when shad swim upstream of a river or tributary to lay eggs in ancient spawning grounds.
During a shad run, which normally occurs in late March through May, millions of shad traveled up the Susquehanna River to lay their eggs which they had done for many years. The number of shad were of such magnitude that some accounts describe the water in front of the shad as rising three to four feet and being visible for almost a quarter-mile away. The Native Americans were probably thrilled at this food source, so easily caught and in such abundant supply.
The Native Americans used different methods to catch shad, including baskets made from twigs or vines, carved fishhooks made of antler or bone, bow and arrows, and fishnets made from wild hemp, or at night by spear and torch lights.
Another method Native Americans used was a sluice, that they made by piling rocks to form two walls which narrowed to funnel the shad through a narrow outlet. The shad could be easily caught as they swam into a basket or trap set at this narrow opening. The shad could also be driven into a shallow pool of water, the entrance blocked with stones, twigs or vines and shad caught by hand. Although the spawning period lasted for only a few weeks, many shad could be caught. The shad were salted, smoked, or dried for winter use.
Although not associated with Washington Boro, is noteworthy to mention a river vessel known as a “Shad Float.” The Shad Float can be described as a floating fish processing plant. It was up to 100 feet wide and up to 300 feet in length. They usually had small buildings placed on them that housed the workers, as well as others used as kitchen/dining area, office, and fish processing. Some floats supported 50-100 workers at a time. Containers or vats were used to store the shad after they were cleaned. The Shad Floats utilized large seine nets and attached guide ropes to deploy and retrieve the nets. One company based in Havre de Grace, Maryland had a fleet of three floats and their spread nets were close to 3 miles in length. No floats were known to have been used in the area of Washington Boro.
Seine nets used offshore of Washington Boro were smaller than commercial seine nets used on the Shad Floats. The nets were under 200 feet in length and 15-25 feet in depth. Often the net was anchored to a fishery located on an island, a tree along the shoreline or a shad battery. Shad batteries were frequently constructed of a wood or log frame and filled with rocks. Deploying the seine nets required the use of a large flat bottomed boat, just like those used to transport animals for island farming. Typically a “lookout” upon spotting the shad, alerted the crew and the boat deployed the net, and as the shad entered the area, arched the boat and net back to the island, shore or battery. The fish were caught in the net, and fishermen waded in the water removing them by hand.
The Gill Net was a net that had floats on top and weights on the bottom. They were spread in a similar fashion to the seine net, but before the sighting of the shad. Nets were placed in a channel, some allowing to drift, others anchored. The shad’s gills were caught in the netting and the fishermen, guiding their boat along the net, collected the fish by hand. The Gill Net was made illegal in Maryland and Pennsylvania in 1824.
The “Dip Net” was another style of net used for shad fishing. The nets were similar to present-day nets used to catch minnows for bait. These nets were lowered into a pool, and as the shad passed, the net was raised and the fish removed. There are records of the owners of island, shorelines or batteries leasing to individuals the right to use their operation. The owner charged a fee that allowed a person to operate the net for “one dip”. Lines of customers formed and after a person took his “one dip” he often went to the end of the line to purchase another dip.
THE SHAD WARS
In the early part of the 18th-century, the Province of Pennsylvania found it necessary to pass laws making it illegal to construct a dam without making provisions for the passage of spawning fish. Few people followed the little enforced law and the construction of waterway dams continued, and few made provision to allow the shad to pass freely. In some cases commercial fisheries or residents living above a dam that was obstructing shad spawning, damaged or destroyed the dam to restore free movement of shad, preserving their livelihood.
During the ongoing shad wars, frequent illegal fishing took place. It was illegal to fish for shad within one-half mile of any fish passageway of a dam. One such incident in the late 1800s was reported in the “Philadelphia Time”s newspaper. The newspaper reports that five fish wardens were sent to Columbia to enforce fishing laws at the canal. Having no respect for the law, the shadders overturned the warden’s boat, forcing them to swim to shore. As they reached the shore they were assaulted by onlookers. Later, after reaching their hotel, the innkeeper locked the warden’s door for their own safety.
The islands, sand bars and rock outcroppings of the Susquehanna River near Washington Boro were used as “Shad Fisheries and Batteries.” These were used to anchor seine fishnets or places where dip nets were lowered into the river current. Maps developed by the Safe Harbor Waterpower Company in the 1920’s list dozens of batteries, islands, and shoals used in the fishing for shad.
To the residents along the river, it was apparent that the shad were a source of food as well as a potentially profitable business. Until the 1700’s shad spawned without obstruction. Small mill dams and later larger dams spanning the entire width of the Susquehanna River eventually brought an end to the shad fishing industry. Thomas Jefferson operated shad fishing operations on the Potomac River and shipped much of his catch to England where he could get top dollar.
Many of the islands of the Susquehanna were owned by the state of Pennsylvania. As the state began selling islands to individuals or companies interested in using them for the fishing industry, early records track the Shad fishing industry. In the last years of the 19th-century, almost 50 Shad fisheries or batteries were located near Washington Boro and the catch during those years averaged around 60,000 fish per year.
Just above Washington Boro, a wooden dam was constructed across the Susquehanna River. The purpose of this dam was to raise the water level which allowed barges to be towed from the Lancaster County shore across the river to the York County shore. The dam did not completely block the water but had breaks which although allowed river vessels to pass downstream. These breaks also allowed the passing of shad, but the swift current deterred most shad from passing through the openings.