Fishing Lines: A shoal of bones to pick

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The Independent Online
Ogden Nash wrote a poem about the shad. I can't remember much of it, except the first two lines:

I'm sure that Europe never had

A fish as tasty as the shad..

with the last line being something like:

But the roe is boneless utterlee.

The shad's great attribute - at least as far as the shad itself is concerned - is that it has about four times as many bones as a herring. Many years ago, I caught one from Southend Pier and proudly brought it home for my parents' supper. They were hugely impressed until they tried to eat it. After four mouthfuls, they sent me outside to get some water, or some subterfuge. When I returned, their plates were clean. "Gosh, you ate that fast!" I said. My mother put me right. "It was very nice, dear, but next time you catch a shad, put it back in the sea."

Or freshwater. For the shad is one of those rare fishes, such as sturgeon and salmon, that spends its life at sea but moves into freshwater to spawn. In most cases, shad spawn in estuaries. But sometimes they fancy a change of scenery and travel miles up rivers such as the Wye, Severn and Dee. The shad I went to meet are probably the most extreme case. They swim to Builth Wells, on the river Irfon, for their annual rave. It is 190km from the sea - an amazing swim for a fish that averages no more than 1lb.

My trip had an ulterior motive. In my capacity as chairman of the new Angling Writers' Association, I've been investigating venues for our first annual conference. As well as having shad (and salmon) spawning grounds in its back garden, Caer Beris Manor is a lovely old hotel with good food and lots of fishing on the doorstep. I suspect the conference bit may last about 30 minutes.

When Peter Smith took the house over, it was the sort of place where you wipe your feet after you walked out. He's spent almost pounds 500,000 to attract something other than the local late-night drinkers, though it hasn't impressed the shad much. They still hurry up to the shallows below Black Pool (30ft deep), deposit their eggs and scuttle back to the seaside. About four days later, the eggs hatch. "Nobody knows why they choose this particular bit of gravel, or why they make this journey every year," Peter said. "It's an amazing sight. Sometimes, the river is black with shad."

An odd metaphor that, as shad are silvery as herring, except for a golden sheen. It's easy to mistake them for herring, though. One fishery officer claimed hundreds were trapped every year on power station intakes in the Severn estuary. When examined by a fish biologist, they proved to be sprats.

The herring story persists in Builth, too. Local youngsters say that in late May, it's possible to catch hundreds in a day - and they are not as prolific as they used to be when farmers netted them and dumped them on their land as fertiliser. Unlike salmon, shad seem to feed just as avidly in freshwater.

One lad told me he and a friend have caught 80 in an hour, using barbless hooks. Amazing, this, when you consider that the twaite shad is uncommon and the larger Allis shad as rare as a correct bill in a Parisian restaurant. Smith has occasionally seen Allis shad up to 8lb, so I was interested to hear if the locals ever caught them. But my source had never heard of them. "They're much bigger than the others, perhaps 8lb," I said, hoping to jog his memory.

"No, those are herring," he said. "We catch quite a few of those. I've caught them up to 5lb. There are more of them around this year."

Wow! By fishing standards, this was a scoop of the highest order. But did I see or catch one? And what is the secret of cooking them? All will be revealed next week.