When Margaret and I were preparing to move to Titusville in 1988, a neighbor who had once been stationed at Patrick Air Force Base told me I should investigate the shad fishing on the St. Johns River. It took me twenty years to get around to following his advice, but with the help of my friend, Ron Hight, I discovered the joy of shad fishing a few years ago and now look forward the shad migration every year.
Shad are not difficult to catch. Troll or cast small, flashy, bright-colored jigs where the current is strongest in the area south of Lake Harney and south of the bridge at State Road 46 from January to early March and you’ll eventually catch one. They are not the greatest fighters in the fish family. Averaging in size between one and three pounds, they’re not all that big. And just so you know, they’re not very good to eat.
So what draws us to the river in January to catch and release a relatively small, inedible fish? That’s a difficult question to answer. For me, it’s aesthetics, which Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a concern for or response to beauty.” Shad are pretty, as fish go, but that’s not the beauty I have in mind. There’s something about being on the river under a deep blue cloudless sky on a sunny winter day in Florida that stirs up a sense of wonder. There will be large flocks of white Pelicans and other wading birds searching the shallows for minnows. There will be Ospreys and Bald Eagles hunting larger fish. And then there’s the wonder of the shad themselves!
Shad are anadromous fish, which means they live most of their lives in the ocean but run into fresh water rivers to spawn (like salmon, only less tasty!). The young shad will spend about a year in fresh water before making their way to the sea to join vast schools of shad that migrate north and south along the U.S. east coast. The shad we catch have spent several years traveling thousands of miles between Florida and the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia before returning to the St. Johns River to spawn. Most will die after spawning, but some may return to the ocean to travel again to the summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy. By the time we catch them in the river south of Highway 46, they have traveled more than two hundred miles upstream, drawn by scent clues in the water to the tributary river or stream where they hatched several years earlier.
The St. Johns is the southern-most river on the U.S. east coast that experiences an annual shad run. In rivers north of Florida, shad wait in the ocean through the Winter until Spring makes the rivers warm enough for them to migrate upstream. St. Johns shad are different. They wait for the river to cool from its summer high temperatures before starting their long trip upstream. By late December or early January, the water temperature in the river will be in the mid-60’s and the shad will be found south of Lake Harney near State Road 46. It will take a few more weeks for the fish to get as far south as Highway 50 and on south past the bridge at State Road 528.
I’m amazed at the abundance of shad God provides. In the year it takes hatchlings to move toward the ocean, they will be prey for bass, crappie, bream, and catfish. They will be pursued by all kinds of birds that feed on minnows. When they finally make it to the ocean, they will face even fiercer predators! And still, there are thousands of them coming back to spawn every year.
God made man to glorify and enjoy Him forever. Enjoyment of God often comes through discovery of and delight in what He has made. The beauty that draws me back to the St. Johns every winter is the glory of God on display in an amazing little fish!
If what God has made is this wonderful, what must the Creator Himself be like?