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SNYDER: With shad returning to Susquehanna, Pennsylvania regains part of its fishing heritage


Each spring, Pennsylvania regains a part of its rich angling history, one fish at a time.

It's a victory for the environment every time a shad returns to its ancestral spawning ground in the Susquehanna River. As the weather warms, we'll see the first few brave fish heading upstream in the next few weeks.

Few anglers realize the vital role that shad played in the lives of this country's first settlers more than 200 years ago. During the period following the Revolutionary War until the middle of the 19th century, these small silver-sided fish were considered one of the most important commodities in the Susquehanna Valley. Now, they're hardly surviving.

Each year, as the cold days of winter faded into summer and the dogwoods showed off their annual bloom, anglers would flock to the Susquehanna in hopes of loading up on a year's supply of shad.

Most shad are born well inshore of coastal waters. After spending their first few months in freshwater, instincts take over and the fish migrate downstream until they reach the deep, salty waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It's here, among the blue whales and white marlins, that the foot-long shad will spend the next few years of their lives. Once the spawning urge kicks in, the shad swim the hundreds of miles it takes to get back home, just like salmon, to the exact pool or tributary where they were born.

As the fish slowly found their way upriver, anglers would net and trap as many as they could. The only factor limiting the size of their catch was the amount they could preserve and store. During the heyday of the fishery, it seemed as though nothing could stop the annual shad migration.

Ah, but sure as the robins in the spring, everything must change. And change it did. As the industrial revolution took off like a runaway locomotive, canals and dams began popping up all over the Susquehanna. As each new lock or dam was built, one new rock-hard obstruction stood in the way of the future survival of Susquehanna River shad.

When the Holtwood Dam was finished in 1910, it marked the beginning of the end for the river's shad fishing heritage. Even though the dam featured a primitive fish ladder, no shad were able to find their way over the massive structure. Above the dam, the centuries-long fishery was over. What had once been an annual fishery of more than 140,000 fish had been taken away almost overnight.

It would take nearly two generations of anglers before the first few shad would return to the waters bordering York County. The fight to bring the shad back was not an easy one. It took hard work and millions of dollars, but the shad are back. The numbers aren't great — certainly nowhere near historic figures — but the fish are here.

The key to their restoration, if we can call it that, was the construction of fish elevators at the four major dams blocking the path of spawning shad. The first facility built was completed in 1991 at the Conowingo Dam. When the last fish lift was completed in 2001 at the York Haven Dam, it opened up more than 400 miles of spawning waters.

Now, when mature shad reach the last leg of their life cycle, they have an opportunity to find their way back to the water where they and the generations that came before them were born.

It's an amazing accomplishment. Who are we to stop it? They'll be here soon.

— Andy Snyder writes about the outdoors for The York Dispatch. He can be reached at