A brush with the strange shad fishing lines

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The Independent Online
I ONCE caught a fish on a wall- papering brush. It was a beauty (the fish, not the brush), weighing almost 2lb. But thousands were milling round the boat so it wasn't really much of an achievement. It all came about because I didn't have any proper tackle with me: just a length of line and a few hooks. So I used some silver paper from a chewing gum wrapper for bait, pulled through the water to look like a small fish. The brush served as a weight to heave this unlikely set-up away from the boat. Seconds later, I hooked a fish. In those days, shad were bountiful in the Thames Estuary.

Interesting fish, shad. At one stage, they were so prolific that netting sites scooped thousands from the Thames opposite the Millbank Prison in London just above Putney Bridge. Much of the whitebait captured in the Thames Estuary were almost certainly young shad. But pollution saw them off and they are rarely caught there now. Competitions on Southend Pier often had a special prize for the biggest shad. (The pigskin wallet that I collected after one such contest has only just fallen apart.)

In fact, my parents may actually owe their longevity to my shad-catching ability at Southend. Our two British shads are members of the herring family. All herring's relatives are very high in polyunsaturated oils, which are supposed to reduce the chance of heart attacks. The trouble is, most people only ever eat one shad in their life. Trying to sift the flesh from its myriad bones is about as much fun as spending two weeks' holiday in the Gdansk shipyards.

Ogden Nash put it very well:

"I'm sure that Europe never had

a fish as tasty as the shad.

Some people greet the shad with


complaining of its countless bones."

with the punchline something like:

". . . but the roe is boneless


My parents were very supportive as I brought home shad after shad. They patiently sat at the breakfast table and picked their way through its hundreds of bones, while I eagerly asked: "Is it all right?" They rarely answered because they were concentrating on spotting bones that were too large to swallow but too small to see easily. In the end, they gave up the battle. My mother ended my shad-killing exploits with the memorable words: "Next time you catch one of those, love, put it back in the sea."

Shad look very similar to herring, with the same large scales and slim, silvery physique. The smaller twaite shad is also known as the herring shad, while the rare allis shad, now protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, grows as large as 8lb and is called King of the Herring.

Even ignoring the fact that you can catch them on a paintbrush, they are strange fish. Several European lakes, notably Como, Garda, Maggiore in Italy, and Lough Leane in Killarney have non-migratory populations which appear to have been isolated for thousands of years. More commonly, they migrate from the sea to spawn in freshwater. In the UK, they swim up the Wye and the Severn in late spring. (Another nickname for Shad is May fish.) The adults head back to sea when the fun's over, while shadlets spend of couple of years in the river before heading for the coast, too.

This annual migration attracts fishermen too, because shad will snap at bait, fly or lure. They may not be much to eat, but they are considered a fine sporting fish. They have become so sought after that angling author John Bailey is organising a June weekend's shad fishing in Wales. Bailey, who runs his own angling travel company, says: "I'm only looking for about half a dozen people. This is very much an exploratory trip, but I know where the fish are and how to catch them." Most of the fish will be twaite shad between 1lb and 2lb. With the fish less plentiful than those balmy 1970s, the paintbrush method is unlikely to be successful. More details from John Bailey at Orchard House, Gunton Hall, Hanworth, Norfolk, NRl1 7HJ (01263 761609).

Correction: My attention has been drawn to a serious error in last week's column. My wife has pointed out that we have had our fridge for 12 years, and not 10 as I stated in last week's column. I apologise for the error and will be making a substantial donation to charity. Hers.