The springtime brings the high, rocky banks at Ancarrow's Landing to life.
As dependable as the first white dogwood blooms that dot the nearby tree line, men, women, buckets and blankets will dot the shore. In nearly every hand, fishing poles that casts over and over into the dark, swirling waters.
Almost so often as to seem like a fish tale, those lines reel out against the struggle of a silver sliver of struggling scales and fins.
Behold, the not-so-elusive hickory shad.
This is the one rite of spring that truly connects modern Richmonders with the sons of Chief Powhatan who once made their homes on the high vantage of Powhatan Hill just across the flowing James River from the Manchester docks and the city-owned Ancarrow's Landing boat ramp. The yearly running of the shad — just as dependable as those first early April dogwood flowers — brings out Richmonders of every size, shape, color and creed.
Carlton Brown has come here every year for more than three decades, filling cooler after cooler with the river's most famous fish.
“I caught a whole cooler full the other day,” says Brown, a wiry, mustachioed senior citizen with a salt-and-pepper head of curls barely contained under a dark wool stocking cap.
Today is slow for Brown. His bucket holds a half-dozen fish, a mix of Hickory shad and their smaller river cousins, the herring.
“They done knocked off all together didn't they, Larry,” Brown says to a fellow fisherman standing upriver a few paces. The two cast their lines again and again into the river in frustration.
“Yeah, they took an early lunch break on me,” Larry Cousins says. “But you just gotta have patience — and a strong arm. They do work you.”
When they're hitting, that is. The little fish — most shad top out at about a foot or so — put up a serious fight. Within a few minutes, Cousins' smile returns — the fish are hitting again.
“You throw in and make your lure bounce,” Cousins explains, casting out about 20 feet and immediately beginning to reel back in — with two sparkling, silver herring attached.
Both Brown and Cousins use no bait. There's no need; the tiny hooks that dot their lines have unique spoons at their tops that taper off after the hook bend in sharp little barbs. In the water, they splash and then wiggle like a little minnow as they're reeled back.
Other hooks along Cousins' line look like tiny flies, with yellow feathers meant to flicker like insects moving — the herring love these.
“We call these the bee-dee,” Cousins says. “But most people know what you're talking about when you say herring rig.”
Nothing works better, he says for hooking the little fish (a good-sized herring tops out at about 8 inches).
As if on cue, Cousins pulls in another pair of fish. “So you see, it works,” he says, giving a satisfied laugh before dumping the catch in his bucket.
A cough from Brown is a reminder to Cousins that not everyone has been so lucky today.
“He's been doing it to me all day,” Brown says with a wink.
The bone-filled shad is not necessarily an easy fish to love. It's something of an acquired taste — like eating a booby trap. More than a sport fish, they're more of a labor of love, acknowledges Brown.
“I cone 'em down,” he says, describing the laborious process of making the otherwise frustrating fish into something more edible. “You put 'em in salt in a bucket. The salt will take care of the bones.”
That salt curing process softens the bones, making breakfast or lunch a less hazardous prospect.
“You gotta soak 'em when you get ready to eat 'em,” he says. This takes the salt out.
Of course there are other reasons to catch shad.
“I just like the roe,” Cousins says. That's the fish's egg sack, another spring tradition on the James. “The roe is the best part of it — oh, you're talking something good.”
His eyes get that far-away look of a man imagining future breakfasts. “Mmmmm, scramble them with some eggs and there you go — you're in heaven.”
But like all good things, the shad run comes to an end each year.
“They'll stop running probably the last of May,” Brown says.
Till then, he'll be back as often as he can. S