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.