Schadenfreude: Hyperdictionary definition: [n] (German) delight in another person’s misfortune.
Shadenfreude: FOTL definition: [n] (Piscatorial) delight in catching bucketloads of American shad, which could be viewed as the fish’s misfortune.
This has become an annual trip for me in recent years. I blast down to Portland for a night of good grub, a dram of Beam, and a few hands of cribbage with my pal Bradley. In the morning we get up before dawn, pound a few mugs of coffee and a Viking-sized butterhorn and make tracks for the Columbia Gorge, where we get in line with several dozen other vehicles to wait for the 7 am starting gun, when they open the Bonneville Dam visitor’s center to the public. It’s key that we be one of the first cars in line, because inevitably we’re the only anglers fly-fishing and we need to establish a proper DMZ for back-casting.
If there can be said to be any sort of silver lining at all to the decline of salmon and steelhead in the Columbia-Snake system, it is the shad. American shad (Alosa sapidissima, from the Saxon allis for European shad and the Latin sapidissima for most delicious), are the largest members of the herring family and native to the Atlantic. Pioneering aquaculturist Seth Green planted the first 10,000 shad in Pacific waters in 1871, introducing the survivors of a seven-day cross-country railroad journey into the Sacramento River. There is evidence that descendants of that original stock might have made it to the Columbia River as early as 1876, but the river was planted in 1885 for good measure.
Now there are millions of shad migrating up the Columbia every year, and without much of a commercial fishery it’s a boom-time for recreational anglers. Most fishermen don’t bother until fish counts over the dam hit 100,000 per day, but owing to a complicated set of schedules, Bradley and I would need to make our trip in advance of that magic number this year. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried.
As Bradley says, fly-fishing for shad in water as big and boisterous as the Columbia is “about as much fun as you can have with a flyrod,” at least on a sustained basis. Sure, there’s nothing quite like a hot steelhead ripping line off your reel (or hooking into a marlin, I suppose, if you’re into 14-weight rods), but in terms of action, it really doesn’t get much better than shad. And in my experience, fly-fishing is far and away the best way to catch a ton of shad, much more so than conventional tackle (although I’m told there’s a hand-lining method that absolutely slays ’em).
There’s something about the dead-drifted fly that turns the shad on, so right off the bat you’re playing to the flyrod’s strength. The take is usually near the end of the drift, which means you’re fighting a three-pound fish downstream in the current of huge water. Double barbed hooks come in handy. As do heavy sinktip lines. I use a soft six-weight rod, which means Bradley is always barking at me to bring in my fish, “enough diddling around already.”
On this day we were joined by Bradley’s brother, Frank. The action was fast and furious all morning as we jostled for position and razzed each other each time a fish got off. Shad have soft mouths and it’s not uncommon to lose as many fish as you land. Still, by noon we had well over a hundred pounds of fish on the stringer, this despite most of the males being tossed back. After lunch Frank and Bradley set to the messy business of harvesting roe from the females. Parboiled for five minutes with a dash of vinegar, the sausage-like roe casings keep well in the freezer and can be fried up in butter to make a powerful fisherman’s breakfast with eggs and spuds.
Minus the eight odd fish I took home to fillet and smoke, the rest of our fish are now at Tony’s Smokehouse & Cannery in Oregon City, getting cleaned, smoked, and pressure-canned. Shad on a shingle, anyone?
Here’s some vid action from the morning, which conveys the social nature of the shad experience. While so much fishing has become a game of devoting monk-like attention to ever-dwindling resources in the face of mounting competition, shad fishing is downright chatty. And with no limits, you can be picky with your catch, tossing back the small males, for instance, despite Frank’s objections…