Black Bears Catching Shad–A Forlorn Scene of Nature

Many nature scenes, common just a few hundred years ago, shall never be seen again.  Some examples of forlorn nature scenes from Georgia that I’ve discussed on this blog include herds of elk and bison grazing on surpentine barren hilltops, flocks of migrating passenger pigeons darkening the sky, a forest of gigantic black oaks with each tree measuring between 8-11 feet in diameter, stands of bamboo cane covering many square miles, a river full of spawning sturgeon, etc.  The thought that these scenes will never exist again gives me feelings of melancholy and loss.  One other nearly forgotten scene would be when black bears caught spawning shad in rivers of eastern North America.  This no longer occurs because black bears have been extirpated from regions where shad still spawn.  Black bears probably preyed upon spawning shad and other species of herring for at least 1 million years, but man completely ended this ecological relationship.  For nature lovers this is just sad.

Illustration from John Lawson’s New Voyage to South Carolina, published circa 1710.  Lawson reported black bears regularly catching spawning shad in eastern rivers and such a scene is depicted in the left lower corner of this illustration.  Black bears have been extirpated from regions where shad still spawn.

Black bear (Ursus americanus).  Formerly common for over a million years, it has been eradicated from most of is original range.

Alaskan brown bears (Ursus arctos) are often filmed catching salmon is remote wilderness areas.  Therefore, nature lovers associate a bear catching a fish with wilderness.  That eastern North America was once just as wild as Alaska seems to be largely forgotten or never thought upon by most people.

John Lawson, an early English explorer and settler of the Carolinas (1700-1711), took note of the black bear’s habit of catching shad and herring during their spring runs. Bear was his favorite meat.  He highly praised the culinary properties of bear meat and fat, but he warned his readers not to eat them during spring when the bruins were gorging upon herrings, for then they tasted “filthily.”

The American shad is in the herring family.

The American shad (Alosa supidissima) is a member of the herring family.  It is an anadromous fish, living most its life in deep ocean waters but swimming up freshwater rivers to spawn in the spring.  Adults that spawn in northern rivers survive and swim back to sea, but those spawning in southern rivers die after spawning.  The eggs, laid on sandy pebbly bottoms, hatch after a week, and the fingerlings make it to the ocean by fall.  A female shad can lay up to 150,000 eggs.  Shad feed upon plankton, small shrimp, and other fish’s eggs, and they will bite during their spawning run, unlike salmon.  Two other species of herring spawn in eastern rivers–the blueback herring (Alosa aestivalis) and alewife (A. pseudohorega).

Herring are rich in the healthy kind of fat.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska destroyed stocks of herring there, and marine life has since struggled to recover.  There are far fewer seals in Prudhoe Bay, even though pollock (the fish most often processed into fish sticks) is still abundant.  Pollock just doesn’t have the nutritive quality of herring.

Planked shad and shad roe with bacon is considered a classic American dish, but I’ve never had the opportunity to eat it.  Herring reportedly have many small bones that make them difficult to eat.  The vinegar in marinated herring dissolves these small bones.  I do enjoy marinated herring on occasion.  I’ve read that some cooks slash the herring and deep fry their slashed fish.  The hot oil supposedly seeps into the slashes and melts the small bones.  I have eaten bream eggs…they taste just like chicken eggs, though a little more bland.  To prepare, drop the fish eggs in boiling salted water for a minute.  Remove with a slotted spoon and serve on toast rounds with mustard.  Expensive caviar pretty much tastes like fish guts but when mixed with cream cheese I can get it down.  Boiled bream eggs are better.

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6 Responses to “Black Bears Catching Shad–A Forlorn Scene of Nature”

  1. rossp Says:

    Just wanted to drop a comment and say that I really enjoy your blog. I’m not even sure how I stumbled across it. As a geologist/environmental scientist/ and general outdoor aficionado, your writing inspires me to think more about the landscapes and creatures that came before us.

    I am originally from northwestern PA, south of Lake Erie, near the final terminus of the Laurentide ice sheet. My locals rivers have had several drainage reversals, and have very sinuous stream beds due to the flattening of the surface.

    When you reference the old journals of early explorers, and how they noted the water clarity gets me thinking. I’ve always wondered what the original substrate would have looked like without all the silt, clay, and mud from human practices.

    I never thought of black bears eating the shad and herring. It absolutely had to have happened. We have lots of native (gizzard) shad in our waters and they are a huge forage base.

    Glacial geology is topic I read into for fun, since it shaped my local landscape. Your writing helps to paint a great mental visual of the waxing/waning and progression/transgressions of the sea levels during the Pleistocene.

    Keep up the great work, I will check back often!


    • markgelbart Says:


      I lived in northeastern Ohio (Niles) until I was 13, not far from the border with Pennsylvania..

      I’ve been considering writing about that region because after 305 articles, I’ve nearly exhausted available material for the southeast, and I’ve got to wait for new studies to be published.

  2. rossp Says:

    I grew up about 30 minutes from Niles, on the Shenango River in Mercer County.

    You absolutely should write about the area. Both Ohio DCNR and PA DCNR, specifically the Geologic Survey for both groups, have published tons of papers on glacial features of the area.

    Most of them related to drainage reversal, alluvium deposits, and temporary glacial lakes. At least the ones I’ve read for pleasure. .

    Would be interesting reading your spin on the area.

    • markgelbart Says:

      The most interesting natural history item I remember about Niles were the big orange fox squirrels. I’ve lived in Georgia for almost 40 years now and have only seen 1 fox squirrel. All we seem to have are gray squirrels, although they are supposed to live here..

      There was a stone quarry a couple lots from our house in Niles. I was forbidden to go there because there was a dangerous cliff involved, but of course I visited it once anyway and got into trouble.

  3. rossp Says:

    The fox squirrel in that area can be very large, and quite tasty.
    The Eastern Grey Squirrels in the city parks in Youngstown often display their black color morph. These squirrels are definitely not hunted by humans (and possibly inbred). The black color phase is recessive. In todays young, open oak forests that black coat would cause the squirrel to be silhouetted and make an easy target. Hiding in the canopy, and dark forest floor of the original forests would have been easier with the black coat.

    The aggregate mining is still active in Ohio and Pa, although the height of activity was in the 1980’s. Many of these abandoned quarries have filled in with cold groundwater and make amazing lakes. Some are even capable of holding walleye and trout due to cold ground water infiltration year-round.

    Luckily some eskers and moraines have been purchased and protected for future generations to observe. Jacksville esker near slippery rock is one of the protecte, also check out Moraine State Park near slippery rock.

    Click to access mercer%20county%20nai%202003.pdf

    This is a link to a paper about natural heritage areas of Mercer county, PA. It discusses some swamps, rare plants, and tree communities that still exist in Mercer County. I’m sure there are some analogous areas in Ohio, but that area of western PA hasn’t been nearly as developed.

    Worth a read, and may help spark an idea for a blog entry!

  4. markgelbart Says:

    Thanks for the link.

    That kind of stuff is right up my alley.

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