Shad | Poor Man's Salmon
Nobody loves shad more than the citizens of Windsor, Connecticut, who hold the Shad Derby to celebrate its return the third Saturday in May with dances, parades, and an immoderate amount of eating.
Yankee Classic: “In Praise of Poor Man’s Salmon,” Yankee Magazine, May 1991
The shad? They’re always here. By the time it ‘s May they’re here,” John Cardillo is saying this sunny, cloudless morning in May outside of the small aluminum shed-trailer he has parked on a bank of the Farmington River in Windsor, Connecticut. “Sometimes there’s lots of them, sometimes less. Depends on the river. Muddy, you don’t see ’em and you can’t fish from the shore; clear, you can. But they’re there. You’ve just got to go out and get ’em.”
John, who is known throughout much of New England as “Mr. Shad,” has removed his three old, well-honed knives from the tin candy box in which he keeps them. As he slides his boning knife — worn to a thin curve — across a small whetstone and prepares to cut into the fat roe shad set on a plank in front of him, he speaks easily of the fish he knows so well, whose return up the river each spring is cause for civic celebration.
The tiny-roofed trailer, with a compact bunk and a worktable bolted to its insides, is just about the only house John has each May during the Connecticut River shad runs, and with a grand sign proclaiming it the Windsor Rod & Gun Club, it functions as well as the de facto headquarters of Windsor’s annual Shad Derby. John’s trailer is where shad caught during the derby are weighed by John on a market scale hung from the door and where he certifies such winners as last year’s eight-pound four-ounce roe shad caught by Mike Berger and Donald Gumula’s four-pound ten-ounce buck shad.
“I guess you could call me the Fish Committee,” John says with a grin.
That he is. He is also, at 83, widely recognized, as a plaque be towed upon him by his town declares, “Windsor’s Most Renowned Fisherman and Founder of Windsor’s Annual Rite of Spring, the Shad Derby.” In addition, he is a fellow who says the idea of a festival to the shad and its annual northward migration arose out of a desire first to keep clean the river that flows through his Connecticut town, second to see that “a tradition is kept, not lost.”
The Windsor Shad Derby has evolved, in its 38 years, into a six-week celebration of the shad, that fat, blue-green and silver member of the herring family.
Activities in the month leading up to Derby Day are the selection of the queen of the shad derby and her coronation ball, a shad derby gala, a shad derby road race, a senior citizens’ ball, a junior fishing contest, a shad derby Windsor Chamber of Commerce golf tournament, an art festival on the town green, and something called a Shadwreck Dance. On Derby Day there is a town-wide parade and a festival on the green with more than 100 booths selling everything from baked shad and kielbasa to braided leather belts. Broad Street, Windsor ‘s main road, is closed for the day, and this town of 27,000 plays host to 30,000 visitors, many of them former Windsor residents who make of Derby Day a day of reunion. The run of the shad is hallowed by The Windsor journal, which puts out a special Shad Derby Festival edition. ”
It’s big all right,” says John, “and it’s all for a fish I call ‘poor man’s salmon.’ ”
“First of all, it’s free. The Farmington’s filled with them. Second, you can catch it with a cheap 50-cent tin-spoon lure. Third, shad will fight like hell; they’re a great sports fish. And … ” He reaches to his shirt pocket and takes off the enamel pin attached to it. He hands it to me. “The Shad Always Return” it reads in gold on green. ” … like the salmon, it always comes back to spawn. Always.”
The flesh of the shad is not pink like that of salmon. It is almost beige and quite firm. The color of the meat tends to darken at the center of the shad’s body along the backbone. When cooked, the meat softens.