RICHMOND, VA. — The harbingers of spring in the mid-Atlantic region are myriad: the delicate tracery of dogwood, forsythia, and redbud; the lilting melodies of Baltimore orioles, cardinals, and robins; and the freezing rain that pelts against the window pane and then melts.
The quintessential mid-Atlantic harbinger of spring, however, is the American shad. Alosa sapidissima, which is Latin for "most savory," aptly describes this denizen of the deep. Shad are anadromous, meaning they live virtually all of their life in the ocean but migrate into the freshwater streams in which they were born, in order to spawn each spring.
Depending on the weather, this phenomenon may occur as early as January in Florida, around April 1 in the mid-Atlantic, and in May and beyond in Connecticut and northward to Canada.
American shad is a schooling species that is sensitive to environmental changes, particularly of temperature and light. This means that after several days of relatively warm weather, when forecasts predict continued warming, large numbers of shad enter freshwater streams.
Thousands of aficionados who live, fish, and eat in shad-rich coastal regions of the US eagerly await that development, because it means that shad are available at top fish markets and restaurants.
However, home preparation guarantees freshness, flavor, and cooking precisely as desired, although the strong aroma - objectionable to some - may linger for several days.
Many believe that smaller fish taste better, so about two pounds is the ideal size. Shad is generally a bargain. The fish itself sells for about a dollar per pound. But a set of popular shad roe costs approximately $10. Prices can vary depending on weather conditions and the vagaries of supply and demand. But if a seller asks substantially higher prices, the fish may have not been caught locally.
Preparation of shad is easy, although some diners consider the fish's hundreds of bones intimidating. When shad is baked at 350 degrees F. for several hours, most of the bones dissolve, leaving just delectable meat. Shad roe is best when baked or lightly fried.
Anyone interested in learning more about the legendary American shad can read John McPhee's book, "The Founding Fish." It's a compendium of shad information - history, lore, and all about catching, cleaning, storing, and cooking them.
But the availability of shad elsewhere on the East Coast this time of year signals that spring is here, even if the weather is contradictory. Shad devotees eagerly anticipate the arrival of the species and the season. Cherry blossoms may be beautiful, they say, but shad are superb.