Of Times & Tides
- First published May 2008.
“Of Times & Tides” was first published in the May-June 2008 issue of “Cliff Notes.”
The shad is the most important fish of the Hudson, being very delicious as food, and caught in such immense numbers, as to make them cheap dishes for the poor man’s table. They enter the Hudson in immense numbers towards the close of March or beginning of April, and ascend to the head of tide water to spawn. It is while on their passage up that the greater number and best conditioned are caught, several hundreds being sometimes taken in a single “catch.” They generally descend the river at the close of May, when they are called Buck Shad, and are so lean and almost worthless, that “thin as a June Shad” is a common epithet applied to lean persons…
Benson J. Lossing, The Hudson, from the Wilderness to the Sea, 1866
We were saddened in January to learn of the passing of Edna Wilson of Alpine, who had since her husband Bob’s death in 2002 been carrying on the work of the Alpine Historical Society. Her keen intelligence and no-nonsense wit will be missed.
We have since been corresponding with her daughter Dorothy Galant of Connecticut. Recently, Dorothy dropped off a box of materials from her mother’s historical files for us to go through so that we could copy any files that were of interest to our own research. As we thumbed through the folders that Edna had meticulously organized, we were given a smile to realize that among them was one filled with back issues of “Cliff Notes.” We noticed one dating back to April 1999. The featured story was based on an interview we had conducted with Bob and Edna about Bob’s “second career” as a Hudson River shad fisherman. With the forsythia still in bloom along the Palisades, we thought it appropriate to reprint a portion of that story this year.
… Shad is a fish, a member of the herring family, valued for both its meat and its roe. Shad spend their adult lives in saltwater, but like salmon, spawn in freshwater rivers. Also like salmon, the shad return to spawn in the same river from which they were hatched, some five years or so earlier. In the case of the Hudson, the shad swim a hundred miles or more upriver to lay their eggs in sandbars beyond Kingston. They begin their journey around April and continue through the next two months or so, instinctively following temperature gradients in the river…
We know that the native peoples of the Hudson Valley spread their nets for the shad run, and we know too that by the nineteenth century the shad run had become established as the single most important event in the Hudson River fisherman’s calendar…
As Bob tells it, when he was a young man growing up in Alpine in the early 1930s, the common perception was that fishing in the Hudson was a dead or dying proposition. The river, it was believed, was “fished out,” the new Interstate Park having replaced the fishing villages along the Palisades (his mother had been born at “Closter Landing,” in the old “Cornwallis Headquarters”). Nets lay unmended in sheds scattered around the area, and the old-timers had only stories to share.
Yet it was also the midst of the Great Depression, and those stories began to take on a new life in the ears of some of the younger men who gathered at a local garage, in Alpine, playing cards (no one having money to gamble away, the loser chopped the next piece of wood for the stove) and trading local gossip. What if the river wasn’t as “fished out” as they all thought it was? And, more to the point, what did they have to lose by finding out? They got some of those nets out of storage. And relearning skills that had seemed on the verge of vanishing, they soon discovered that Old Man Hudson might still have a few surprises up his watery sleeves…
What began as almost a lark spurred by economic hard times around 1931, by 1937 had become a rebirth of the shad fishery along the Palisades. (Confirming Bob’s recollections, our Annual Report for that year shows that interest in shad fishing had become so intense that the Commission needed to put permits out to bid.) Some fishermen lived in shanties along the base of the cliffs during the season — Bob recalls a couple of truly intrepid fishermen who set up shop along the forbidding boulders of the Giant Stars — others in barges moored offshore. For all, it could be grueling work.
Shad are fished with gill nets, which must be set and retrieved twice each day, with the turning of the tides. A typical net is 1,200 feet long and is strung along poles that are sunk into the mud of the river’s bottom. These poles are often fifty feet or more long, and setting them up from tiny boats at the start of the run and then removing them at the end may be the most arduous tasks of the season. (Bob still speaks with a kind of reverence about the small motorized winch he and his mates eventually acquired to help them with this task.) Even with the help of outboard motors, the round-the clock setting and retrieving of the nets could amount to back-breaking work, as well, work that needed to be timed precisely with the change in the tides, for almost two months straight. And when all other tasks were done, the nets always needed mending. Always.
Like so many young men who grew up in the Depression—like so many of the “new” generation of Palisades shad fishermen — Bob entered the service during the Second World War. He returned to find work as a carpenter, and later became the Building Inspector for Alpine, where he and Edna still live. He no longer needed to fish, to face the demands of the daily tides. And yet, up until the 1960s, if you came down to Alpine Boat Basin during the annual shad run, you would find Bob there, living in a shed beside the pavilion with his fellow fishermen. Going to the nets with each tide. Loving it.
During those two months, Edna would bring their children down to visit — along with some goodies from home. Today she shakes her head and smiles as she recalls Bob’s devotion to the shad run, the grueling hours spent on the water. Yet even as she says that she never quite understood what kept bringing him back to the river all those years, one gets the feeling she does know. It’s just that words cannot really express such mysteries as are found in a living river.