The market is small, bright and tidy. It’s Friday during Lent, and a steady stream of regulars swings through the door of Old Lyme Seafood in eastern Connecticut to buy fish. Two 40-quart pots of Rhode Island clam chowder are on the stove in the back, and the aroma is welcoming.
The phone rings. A woman asks whether the market has any shad yet. It’s the first week of March; the caller is early by a good month, probably more, guessing by the late winter and the long freshet we’re likely to see.
Late spring or not, schools of anadromous American shad (Alosa sapidissima) will soon enter the lower Connecticut River bound for their freshwater spawning grounds, as they have since long before the European colonization of the New World. And fish market owner Dawn Root will be ready to play her role in this traditional spring run, which was an early and important fishery in this country.
Root is part of a small and vanishing tribe of fisherfolk who know how to bone shad, no small feat considering the multitude of fine bones that comprise the internal architecture of this fish, the largest of the herring family and one that used to be called the “poor man’s salmon.”
Dr. C. Lavett Smith, the late curator of the American Museum of Natural History, once estimated that an American shad had somewhere between 750 and 800 bones, “depending on what you count as a bone.” The problem with shad, he told an interviewer more than 20 years ago, is that they have intermuscular bones.
Root, whose family started the fish market 48 years ago, takes all the fuss over filleting shad in stride. The daughter of a tidewater Connecticut River fishing family, Root learned to bone shad when she was 8 years old, standing beside her mother, Geri, and practicing on a fresh spring fish with a butter knife. “My mom was the quickest and neatest of anyone,” says Root, 56, who grew up in a house next to the market. “When I was learning, they wouldn’t let me use a real knife.” She’s been doing it so long it’s second nature. “Like riding a bike,” says Root. More like steering a unicycle down a narrow, crowded street.
“There are 24 cuts on each side of the fish, 48 total,” says Root, whose shop sits at the edge of a salt marsh just east of the Connecticut River. “My mom taught just about everybody around who knows [the technique] called the ‘new cut.’ They call it the new cut, but it’s not that new. She’s been gone for 21 years.”
I asked Root to estimate how many shad she’s filleted over four-plus decades. She rolls her eyes. We did some quick math, and the number comes out to be tens of thousands of fish. She can bone maybe 24 or 25 fish in an hour.
Demand for shad in the late 1970s and early ’80s was such that the family fish market had as many as six women cutting from early morning into night from about mid-April to mid-May, the peak of the season. And Dawn’s father, Harry “Junior” Root, bought shad from a half-dozen drift gillnet boats to augment what he caught himself. “Sometimes I stayed home from school to bone,” she recalls.
Demand has fallen off, and now Root alone can fillet all the shad needed to satisfy her customers. The fish simply isn’t as popular as it once was.
If boning shad today is a dying art, it was once the secret art of fishmongers, especially for the generations before Root, who closely guarded the technique. The skill meant extra money for hardscrabble families squeezing a living out of thin seasonal fisheries. “In the old days, if someone came in, you were supposed to stop and cover your fish,” Root says. “The old timers, the old people would struggle and struggle — they couldn’t wait till shad season. That’s when they made their money.”
Root grew up in a fishing family. Her father was a waterman and jack-of-all-trades who “could fix anything,” says Root, who bought the market and the house she grew up in after her father died 14 years ago.
Once upon a time in America, shad and river herring comprised the most important commercial and recreational fisheries along the Atlantic. But overfishing, habitat loss, and dams and other barriers to migration have extracted a brutal toll on a silver bounty that once seemed limitless. The shad population today is in trouble.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Root, keeping an eye on the chowder. “There aren’t a lot of people who know how to bone. There aren’t a lot of people shad fishing anymore. There aren’t as many people eating them. And the youngsters aren’t interested. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But you can bet on one thing. Come spring, Root will lay out fresh shad fillets in her market showcase with nary a bone to be found.