KIDS: All About Shad

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All About Shad



Before we present some shad information, we need to provide the definitions of some terms:

Anadromous (pronounced AH-NAD-DRO-MUS) - Anadromous fish are fish that live most of their lives in the salt water, but return to freshwater streams to spawn.

Buck - Male shad.

Habitat - The place and conditions in which an organism lives.

Migrate - Moving from one location to another, usually on a seasonal basis to spawn.

Plankton - The term plankton refers to a variety of small creatures that drift near the surface in saltwater or freshwater.

Roe - Female shad. Also refers to the eggs inside a female fish.

Schooling - Schooling fish are ones that live their lives in large groups, mostly for protection.

Spawning - This is the act of shad reproduction when the female and male shad swim closely together releasing eggs and milt into the water. The eggs are fertilized in the water, and drift for several days before hatching. Shad spawn in Connecticut rivers in May and June.


Our Shad, The American Shad

{American Shad}


The American shad, an anadromous fish, is a member of the herring family which also includes alewives. The scientific name of the fish is Alosa sapidissima, meaning "most delicious." These migratory, schooling fish are found in off-shore waters from the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River to northern Florida until spring when they enter freshwater streams to spawn. 


The opposite of anadromous is catadromous (pronounced CAH-TAD-DRO-MUS). Catadromous fish live most of their lives in the fresh water, but return to the ocean to spawn. Most eels are catadromous.

Description, Size and Weight

The back is metallic green to blue/green, and the sides are silver to white on the belly. When the fish enter fresh water to spawn, these colors darken. Along the belly there is a ridge of sharp scales called scutes (pronounced "scoots") which are a distinguishing feature of this fish. Along each shoulder there is a row of dark spots, usually with one large and several smaller ones. The body has a compressed, or flattened, shape, and the tail is deeply forked. The average weight of adult shad is between 3 to 6 pounds. While adult shad can reach up to 30 inches in length, the average is 12 to 24 inches.

{Adult shad photo}

Adult Shad (Alosa sapidissima)


In the spring of each year, adult shad, between 4 and 6 years old, return from the ocean to the streams where they were spawned. The actual return date is controlled by the water temperature to which the fish are extremely sensitive. It is believed that they recognize their home stream through their sense of smell. Female shad are carrying between 100,000 and 500,000 eggs or roe (pronounced "row"). 

Male and female shad (called bucks and roe) travel as far up the stream as possible to allow the eggs to drift downstream and hatch before reaching the ocean. As the females release their eggs in open water, males release milt which fertilizes the eggs.  This "open-water" spawning pattern is believed to be one of the reasons why the shad has survived in large populations, while the salmon, which must make nests (called redds) have declined.

After the adult fish spawn, they either die or return to the ocean. Female shad are known to live up to 10 years. Northern shad, such as those in the Connecticut River, can return to spawn up to four times, but release less eggs than shad in southern waters.

The fertilized eggs drift downstream for six to ten days before hatching. They are an important food source for other species of fish during this time. After hatching, the immature fish (called "fry") will stay in the fresh or brackish (a mix of fresh and salt) water until the fall. After consuming their yolk sacs, they feed largely on insect larvae. Also during this stage, they are an important food source for other species including bass, and pike. By the time they reach the ocean, the fry population has been reduced to about 30% of the original numbers. 

After reaching the ocean, the remaining immature shad form schools and begin a three to five year migration pattern in the off-shore or coastal waters. They feed on plankton and smaller fish. Upon reaching maturity, they will return to their home stream to begin the life cycle again.

The Shad Bush

The Shad Bush is another name for the Downy Serviceberry, also called the June-berry (Amelanchier canadensis). This bush, which is the first to bloom in the spring, is called the Shad Bush because it is usually in bloom when the shad are running up the New England rivers including the Connecticut River. It has abundant white blooms in the spring, and yellow to red foliage in the fall. The red berries are edible, and are often taken by birds.

Shad Bush in Bloom

Shad Bush Blossoms

American Shad picture used by permission of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and the artist, Diane Peebles. Shad Bush pictures from the University of Connecticut.

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Content Last Modified on 3/25/2015 11:15:54 AM