AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The American shad lives most of its life at sea except for a few weeks in early spring, when it swims upstream into rivers to spawn. That's precisely what fishermen in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania have been waiting for.
As NPR's Joel Rose reports, the shad's annual return to the Delaware River is a springtime tradition that goes back centuries.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The shad run starts when the water and the river gets above 50 degrees; in Lambertville, New Jersey, that means sometime in late March or early April. That's when Steve Mazur starts fishing for shad, but not with a rod and reel the way most people do.
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ROSE: Mazur rows a boat out into the middle of the Delaware River dragging a net that's more than a hundred yards long. There's also a team onshore holding the other end, waiting to haul the net back in. There are other ways to fish for shad, ways that are less muddy and easier on your back.
STEVE MESERVE: People always ask me, you know, why do I do this? And it's like, I don't know what else you can do in April and May. I should be out on the water. I should be getting muddy and slimy and sore and tired.
MURIEL MESERVE: It just is what you do in the spring. I can't imagine not being here, not seeing the fish come in.
ROSE: This is Steve's mother, Muriel Meserve. The family has been fishing this way in this exact spot since the late 19th century. Back then it was a way to make money. But Meserve says the business collapsed along with the shad population.
MESERVE: My grandfather was a very stubborn man. And even though there were no fish, he would go out every spring just to make sure and advocated strongly for cleaning up the river, because he was sure if the river was clean they'd come back. And they did.
ROSE: Today, the fishery is more of a hobby. There's a rotating cast of people who stop by after work or school and pull on a pair of waders. Fourteen-year-old Connor Caul(ph) is one of them.
CONNOR CAUL: Oh, it's fun. It's nice to be outside after being inside all winter. It's nice to get out. I love fish. I love shad. I actually seem to be one of the only ones around here that actually enjoys eating it.
ROSE: That's an exaggeration but only slightly. There are many who feel that shad is more fun to catch than to eat, even in this crew. Ted Crumelbine(ph) has been shad fishing every spring for decades.
TED CRUMELBINE: Take the oiliest, fishiest thing you can find, covered in dirt and cook it and that's what the shad tastes like. And then fill it with bones. It's bad.
CRUMELBINE: I don't know. You know, they had to be close to death to want to eat these things in the springtime.
ROSE: Some people prefer the shad roe, the fish's eggs. Others claim the fish is good smoked. However you feel about the flavor or shad, it's a moot point tonight.
When the team hauls in the net there are no fish in it. Steve Meserve says that's not unusual this early in the season, especially after a big winter.
MESERVE: The water has been high. There's been all that snow that's got to go somewhere and it's still coming down river, keeping things cool.
ROSE: But these fishermen will try again tomorrow evening. Eventually they'll be joined by hundreds of anglers with rods and reels, as the days and the river get warmer.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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