Shad – caught bare-handed

One year, a nearby stream became a magical cord of moving silver thread as shad ran up it.

Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/Newscom/File
Airborne: A shad jumps from the water in a diversion channel off the Mississippi River near Camp Wood, Ill.

We'd played there often – swinging on the "Tarzan vine" over the stream, running along the skinny, knobby dirt paths, or sliding down the slippery grass hills to the stream. Yet our senses were always alert when we entered the sun-dappled trees, secretly alert for something magic. That April my friends and I were 11 years old, and the whole world seemed full of possibilities. As we tiptoed toward the cows that grazed in the far field at the end of the woods, our reality shifted, and they became bulls in our minds – ready to charge in a fit of rage at anyone who wore red.

Peering over the wooden fence at the docile cattle, we spoke in low tones and then tore off at a rapid pace, panting with half-fake, half-real fear when the animals started to wander toward us.

The narrow stream, small enough to jump over, could be seen through the trees. There was something odd about it that day, and the oddness was not in our imaginations. It was bubbling, glittering, and moving faster than ever before. It was teeming with big, silver fish. A solid glut of them tumbled through the water. It became a cord of moving silver thread with flashes of gold, pink, and green as the fish jumped. None of us knew what to do besides stare at them wordlessly. One of the boys ran home to get his father.

After a wait that seemed forever, my friend's father lumbered down the hill toward us. The very air around us shifted into something solid and real as he somehow dispersed the air of magic with his touch of the practical everyday. "Shad!" he pronounced, looking up at us from his knees in the muddy ground bordering the stream. "Get down here and get some!"

He started pulling fish out of the water with his big, bare hands. Reaching into the water he grabbed tight around the flipping shimmer of streaming fish then lifted them out one by one, dripping and fighting between his palms. The four of us kids decided that if a mere dad could do it, so could we. The fish were slippery and strong. Tiny scales bit into the palms of our hands; sharp tails hit our bared arms, and the smell of the river bottom rose into the air. A wild sense of fraternity bonded us together, and as we looked into the flat eyes of the shad, we felt as if we had become a part of ancient ways and rhythms.

Our small hands plunged into the cold water over and over again, trying to pull out more. Soon we were soaked to the bone from diving half into the water. Although the shad continued to follow their primal urge up the small stream, our urge to catch them was sated.

I lugged home 15 shad to my mother's small kitchen.

She was not thrilled. Staring at me rather expressionlessly, all she said was, "Bony. Nobody eats these. Trash fish."

But she cleaned a few and froze some more. There was roe – a strange thing I'd never seen before – in two of the shad. My mother allowed that shad roe was "Good to eat; it's gourmet." And so it was.

After she quickly browned the roe in butter, it got a squeeze of lemon juice and that was it.

The roe sat alone on the plate, resembling nothing that would garner an admiring look from anyone. It crumbled a bit as the fork hit it, and the tiny eggs divided into broken architectural shapes. The color was unworldly with its slight undertone of pinkish gray. It felt slightly gritty, then tasted surprisingly rich and light. Shad roe tastes only like itself, like nothing else in the world, I discovered.

Later we had one of the whole shad baked in the oven. It was exactly as my mother had noted – bony. But that didn't matter too much to me – I recalled the scent of the wet grass and the slightly acrid smell of fish plucked fresh from the stream. I could still see those silver and rainbow flashes tumbling through the chilly, bubbling water.

For some days afterward we all ran to the stream after school, bragging loudly to each other about the hundreds (thousands maybe!) of fish we'd catch. But day after day, the water was fallow of shad – the best things to hunt were toads. To this day, that year remains in memory as the Year of the Magical Shad – for never again did the fish run up that stream. We were just fortunate to have been there for it.

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