Several members of the shad and herring family make seasonal appearances along the Virginia Coast, the Chesapeake Bay, and its many tributaries. Each of these fish are anadromous; they spend most of their life at sea, before migrating through the bay and into rivers or shallow areas to spawn.
The American shad is the most famous anadromous shad that enters Virginia waters. Historically, shad gathered in great numbers in the spring, spawning in rivers and creeks of the Chesapeake Bay system.
Although restoration efforts have been implemented, The species has been in decline in recent decades. Low but stable levels of American shad exist the Rappahannock River and elsewhere in the Chesapeake Bay. James River shad have been classified as in decline.
The American shad is also known as white shad, Atlantic shad or “poor man’s salmon.” The species is sometimes found with the hickory shad which is similar in appearance. American Shad are beautifully colored and extremely tough fighters, known for their ability to run and make spectacular jumps.
Most recreational fishing for American shad occurs in the spring, when adult fish enter rivers to spawn. Anglers fish for them using small flies, jigs, shad darts, spoons, sabiki rigs or other lures. As of 2010, Virginia regulations allowed catch and release fishing only for shad.
The hickory shad is a similar species; smaller than American shad. An identifying feature of this species is its lower jaw which juts out further than the upper jaw. The hickory shad is silver with amber highlights. The species has a pattern of spots on its shoulder which are duskier and more obscure than American shad.
Similar to shad, river herring are seasonal visitors to Virginia estuaries. The term “river herring” is a collective name for 2 similar species of anadromous fish; alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) and blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis). Both species spend their adult lives at sea, eventually returning to Virginia’s creeks and rivers to spawn.
The alewife is usually grayish green above, fading down their sides to a silver underbelly. A distinct dusky spot appears just behind the upper margin of their gill cover. Adult alewives average 10-11″ in length. Alewives are also known as branch herring, sawbelly, freshwater herring, grayback, bigeye or spring herring.
The blueback herring tends to have a dark blue back and smaller eye than the alewife. The species spends the greater part of its life in salt water, returning to small creeks only to spawn. It usually spawns later in the spring than the alewife, when water temperatures are a bit warmer.