Fishing for Votes
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
By the time I drive back to Wakefield, campaign signs line the blacktop for hundreds of yards outside the Sportsmen’s Club. It’s impressive, and it hints at the event’s political clout. During presidential and congressional election years, the “sign war” creates a thicket of placards that presses in on the road for miles. It’s not uncommon for political teams to sneak in under the cover of darkness, moving their signs in front of opponents’ signs and jockeying for position at certain curves and intersections. “It can get kind of ridiculous,” says a grinning Brittle, who happens to be the chair of the Wakefield Shad Planking this year.
A freshly caught American shad.
Still, modern life isn’t making things easy on a community shad planking. There’s growing competition from oyster roasts and music festivals. The burgeoning craft beer, wine, and farm-to-table scenes crowd the calendar. “Seems like there’s another festival every weekend,” Brittle says. “That doesn’t help.” And social-media-savvy politicians have their own concerns about attending any large event that involves beer trucks and bourbon tastings and a smattering of booths from various political movements. “Somebody posts a picture of the governor walking past a liquor booth and the next thing on the news is a story about the governor getting drunk,” says one Ruritan Club member, carrying a log toward the fire.
I didn’t see any examples of such chicanery. A lot of folks were too busy working. It takes at least sixty volunteers to run the Wakefield Shad Planking. There are separate committees to oversee the fire, the nailing down of the fish on the planks, the basting sauce, the plate preparation. Under a shelter two men wield cleavers: There’s a single chop to remove the tail, and three chops to quarter the rest of the fish. Each plate was heaped with planked shad, baked beans, slaw, and pickles. Fifteen Ruritan volunteers manned the serving line while another dozen ferried fish from the fire, balancing the hot oak planks with heavily gloved hands.
Standing around flatbed trailers as makeshift dining tables were hundreds of shad eaters, in business suits and skirts, Carhartts and khakis. Guys in T-shirts emblazoned with pipe shop logos talked about how many turkeys they heard that morning, trading stories about deer pictures from their trail cameras with men in starched shirts and neckties.
I sidled up to one older gentleman in chinos pressed with a pleat, cowboy boots, and a turquoise bolo tie. Elwood Floyd Yates, Jr., eighty-five, is from Powhatan County, some thirty miles west of Richmond. His father, Elwood Floyd Yates, Sr., served six sessions in the Virginia General Assembly, and attended every Wakefield Shad Planking from 1949 until he died at age 107 in 2010. Yates attended his first Shad Planking with his father when he was either twenty-one or twenty-two. “I’m not sure which,” he told me. “But I’m sure I haven’t missed a single one since.”
Attendees enjoy the food and fellowship.
Yates remembered setting shad nets “on the Chick,” which is the Chickahominy River, “back when if we heard an outboard motor we’d run to the river to see what it was.” Now, he lamented, you couldn’t float a net in the Chickahominy for all the boats in the river, “but never mind,” he figured. “You can’t net for shad these days anyway.”
When he found out I’d never eaten fried American shad roe, Yates lit up. If planked shad is an acquired taste, shad roe is the equivalent of taking out a mortgage. It’s alternately described as liver-like, grainy, and sublime, a love-it-or-throw-it-on-the-ground culinary experience. “I want to be there to see your first bite of shad roe,” he said. “Come on here. We’re a-going right now.”
We walked over to the roe tent where the egg sacs were lined up like sushi. The queue was fifty people deep. When it was my turn, I held my cupped hands out as if accepting Communion. I was given twinned sacs of roe in a white paper french fry tray, red-pink like salmon, rolled in seafood breader and deep-fried. I took a bite. The roe sacs firmed up in the heat of the hot fat, like a hush puppy flavored with a delicate brine, a mouthful of the Tidewater if ever such a thing existed.
Yates watched my expression. “Uh-huh. That’s what I told you,” he said. “You won’t ever forget that.”
From left: Crockett carries fish to the fire; crowds gather beneath the trees; a planked shad.
By 4:00 p.m. the Shad Planking was bumping, and from the roe tent I made my way toward the main stage, past the booths with the free hats that push for offshore drilling in Virginia, past the Libertarian candidate touting his all-electronic, paper-free campaign, past the supporters of Confederate History Month and the tailgates groaning with old soldiers, their caps sporting Purple Hearts and service units.
Up on the stage, John H. Hager was finishing his speech, and I caught him before he could fill a plate with planked shad. Hager is a Republican stalwart who served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor from 1998 to 2002. He went to his first Wakefield Shad Planking thirty-six years ago.
“There is tremendous history here,” he said, with a politician’s ease, one eye on me and one on whoever else might be waiting for a word. “The Shad Planking is a seasonal rite of spring, but in the political realm, as well. Folks are coming out of their winter mode, ready to get back and get involved. It’s a time to reach back to your roots and foundations, whether from a political perspective or as a community.”
What he was trying to say is that it was time to get down in there amongst ’em.