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.