Fishing for Votes

Randy Harris
by T. Edward Nickens - Virginia - April/May 2016

Every April in Tidewater Virginia, politicians and ordinary folks gather to celebrate spring, smoked shad, and the age-old practice of civic discourse. Welcome to the Wakefield Shad Planking

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He told me to “get down in there amongst ’em,” and he should know. The old man was talking about the cypress knees and one ancient cypress tree in particular, between the Nottoway River boat ramp and the tumbled-down Southside Railroad trestle maybe fifty yards downstream. He’d fished there for years, he said. It was a twenty-five-minute drive, but that was the spot. Something about it drew the shad.

At the time we were standing in front of the largest cooking fire I’d ever seen, a 120-foot-long pyre of seasoned oak that had burned down to coals at the Wakefield Sportsmen’s Club, in Wakefield, Virginia. The Wakefield Shad Planking was nearing its seventh decade, and this mash-up of political rally and community fish feed remains a don’t-miss event in southeastern Virginia. Around the fire, 160 tall wooden planks stood like tombstones. Two American shad, butterflied as if in supplication, were nailed to each board. They glistened in the flames, rendered fat dripping down the blackened wood. It takes about six hours to plank a shad, and by the time these were ready, the politicians would be glad-handing the crowds at the Sportsmen’s Club. The tables and booths were already going up in the shade of tall pines: the Western Tidewater Young Republicans, the Prince George Electric Cooperative, a group lobbying for less restrictive marijuana laws. Someone sound-checked the stage audio. Someone else swept off the flatbed trailers that would serve as picnic tables for hundreds of shad eaters.

From left: A row of planked shad during the smoking process; wetting a line in the James River; Earnest Crockett with butterflied shad.

But all that was to come. Six hours of downtime, I figured, should be time enough to catch a few of the fish myself.

I found the old man’s spot easily enough. The Nottoway River carves a gentle curve to the east, with a high bluff on river right, and the tannin-stained water swirled in paisleys of current around the cypress knees. Between the cypress and shagbark hickory trees there was a worn piece of muddy ground, and I knew in an instant it was the precise location the old man mentioned. I cast quickly and without thinking and I wasn’t really ready, but on that very first cast I hooked an American shad. It was silvery and shaped like a wedge, and it sounded deeply and used the river current to double the fight. I didn’t get another hit for forty-five minutes, but I wasn’t terribly concerned. For once, I knew with certainty where plenty of fish were waiting.

The Wakefield Shad Planking’s roots reach back to the early 1930s, when a group of men gathered to cook shad on wooden planks along the James River in Isle of Wight County. Even then, the informal event was an amalgam of cultural preservation and politics: Virginia Indians had planked shad for hundreds of years, and Virginians were known for their affinity for political sparring. The Ruritan Club took over the event in 1949 and moved it to Wakefield, where it has remained ever since, although it has changed dramatically in size and character. During presidential and senatorial election years, the crowd can swell to better than two thousand. Harry Byrd, Sr., Harry Byrd, Jr., John Warner, and George Allen have stumped at the event. Whereas once it was a whites-only, male-only, heavy-drinking gathering, it now draws a cross section of the Southside Virginia community. Women and African Americans first forayed to the planking in the 1970s. Public drunkenness is frowned upon. And while it was once a largely Democratic affair, the Shad Planking these days reflects the Republican tenor of southeastern Virginia.

But little has changed about the menu. American shad figure deeply in Southern history, although many Southerners today know little about them. Native to Atlantic-slope rivers from Labrador to Florida, shad live in the open ocean as adults, then migrate up coastal rivers, in the manner of salmon, to spawn. Before dams walled off the migrations, shad numbers were bewildering—the fish were so plentiful that Native Americans and colonists used them for fertilizer. In 1896 the American shad harvest in North Carolina’s Albemarle Sound, where men and mules hauled 10,000-foot-long seines, peaked at nearly 9 million pounds of fish. In Virginia, commercial landings of American shad regularly topped 10 million pounds. There are still remnants of the giant wooden “shad walks” along South Carolina’s Pee Dee River, where laborers worked the nets from shore.

The fire is lit before dawn and burns for the six hours it takes to plank a shad.

Such an accessible and inexpensive food source put shad on the table of Southern farm families for months out of the year. Born in Shadwell, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson netted for shad as a child. George Washington ran a commercial shad operation, and shad helped keep his Continental troops alive after that bitter Valley Forge winter. The fish fed the growing number of slaves across the South. And for decades after the turn of the twentieth century, rural Southerners flocked to shad “plankings” or community shad feeds as they do to pig pickin’s today.

But American shad numbers have gone off a cliff in the last few decades. The Susquehanna River used to see millions of spawning American shad. In 2014, only eight fish made it past the four dams that clot the waterway. The story isn’t quite so dire in the James, the Rappahannock, the Roanoke, and the Pee Dee, where fish populations are high enough to pull in recreational anglers. But despite millions of dollars spent on shad stocking and restoration efforts in Atlantic states, American shad populations remain a thin shadow of their former selves. There are bright spots: Between 2000 and 2014, American shad abundance in the Chesapeake Bay rose dramatically, with the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers posting high gains. But the numbers still pale in comparison to historic highs. “From a recreational fishing perspective, we are sustaining shad populations in the Chesapeake Bay drainage,” says Eric Brittle, a fisheries biologist with the Virginia Department of Game & Fish. “The populations are low, but stable.” A commercial moratorium on shad harvest in Virginia actually means festival organizers have to get the fish from neighboring North Carolina.

It all conspires to give the Wakefield Shad Planking an undercurrent of anachronism, but it’s a vibe equally yoked to the fervent desire to keep the tradition alive. American shad might be on the ropes, and political discourse might be more fractured than ever, but for a single day in late April every year, the fish provide a meeting place down in the Tidewater where salt meets fresh. And the right meets the left.

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