For decades every spring, Virginia’s Pamunkey Indians have helped millions of baby shad into the world.
It’s a little like magic, the way Henry Langston can set 200 feet of five-inch-mesh seine net to drift on the incoming tide, net so fine it looks like it’ll tangle if you so much as breathe on it too hard. He sits quietly in the back of his olive-green aluminum skiff, clips an orange, plastic jug float to one end of the net’s top line, tosses it overboard and then starts quickly, methodically paying out net from the plastic trash can at his side. Every so often he grabs the tiller of his four-hp outboard, adjusting his course. Every 12 feet or so a small orange cork pops out, attached to the top line, and pretty soon the little floats bob in a long half-moon across the still water of the Pamunkey River, off a little scrap of bog known as Doc’s Island Bar. Langston can’t say why it’s called that. Nor can he know for sure whether he will catch some spawning females, which he calls roe shad, or some males, which he calls bucks, or just come up with nets tangled in alewives, which he calls mud shad. Nor can he offer any real explanation for how he manages to set all this net so cleanly, so quickly. Practice, maybe.
“Well, I’ve been doin’ it a long time,” he says. “I’ve been fishing out here a long time. We didn’t have motors. I used to pull with one oar, my first cousin pulled the other.” His granddaddy would set the net. “We pulled the boat, and he put the net in,” he says. It was spring then too, the low, wild riverbanks laced with white dogwood and wild azalea. They would wait until just before twilight to head out fishing, because that’s when the roe shad like to come upstream, back up the river of their birth. Langston can’t say why evening is the best time, either. It just is. Always has been.
He’s taken off his Ray Bans, and his eyes are a hazel brown, the irises rimmed in a startling turquoise. He’s wearing a sweat-stained baseball cap, and his long-sleeved shirt is tucked neatly into green corduroys, which disappear into a pair of thigh-high, mud-brown waders. He is 73 years old, and his wiry frame is strong, his hands and face nearly unlined. His quietude suits this murmuring, low-country stretch of river where Pamunkey Indians have lived for 10,000 years, where shad have always run in the early spring twilight, where young men learned from their granddaddies how to set a gossamer net to drift and not to play with a snapping turtle, or it might grab you and not let go until the next thunderstorm.
After setting a second net, Langston chugs back to the first one, eyeing the floats, which tell their own stories. “See how this cork is heavy?” He points to a float that is just slightly deeper than its neighbors - a barely perceptible difference to an unknowing eye. “It’s holding. It’s not riding the waves. It’s got weight on it.” That means something is pulling it down, and depending on how the float moves - with quick little jerks or longer, smoother tugging - it’s likely a mud shad or the real thing - a buck or roe shad. “Sometimes they’ll fool me,” he says, “but usually if it’s calm I can tell.” He cuts the outboard. Sculling carefully alongside the net, the middle of his oar wrapped in frayed duct tape where it rubs against the boat’s gunwhale, he stops at the float and slowly pulls up the net. Glistening like a silvery rainbow, a roe shad emerges from the muddy water, hopelessly snagged in the net. Langston lifts her gently, cradling her body with both hands and sliding the net off of her. “That’s the lady,” he says, running his thumb and forefinger along her stomach, kneading and squeezing. “But she is not ready.” He shakes his head and lets her slip over the side.
This is how it will go, well into the evening as the tide starts pulling the nets and the boat faster upstream and the sun sinks behind thunderheads growing purple in the northwest sky. Langston will quietly watch the floats, check the nets and wait to find a roe shad who is spawning. He’ll squeeze the eggs from her - maybe a thousand of them - into a small white bucket, then find a buck and squeeze a few drops of sperm into the bucket too. “Then we stir it, let it set two minutes, then add some river water into it. It sets about an hour. Those eggs swell up, and you run your hand in there and they feel like BB shot or something.” After he’s gathered as many eggs as he can, he’ll pull his nets and skim back to the dock beneath the sycamore trees next to the shad hatchery, where Pamunkey Indians like Henry Langston have been serving as shad midwives since 1918.
“We’ve been fishing all our lives, and the river was a way of life,” says Warren Cook, vice chief of the Pamunkey Tribal Government and shad hatchery administrator, a job Langston held for six years. “We decided we wanted to help put shad back in the river. We’re the oldest shad hatchery in the United States.”
The Pamunkey’s ancestors in what is now Virginia date back some 10,000 years. When Captain John Smith sailed up the James River and helped establish Jamestown in 1607, the Pamunkeys were the most powerful of all the tribes that comprised the vast Powhatan Confederacy. The new settlers eventually imposed their will upon the native tribes, and a 1677 treaty that the Pamunkeys established with the colonists lays it out pretty clearly, stating the natives could “enjoy their wanted conveniences of oystering, fishing and gathering tuccahoe, curtenemons, wildoats, rushes, puckone or anything else for their natural support, not useful to the English . . . Always provided they first repaire to some publiques majestrate of good repute and inform him of their number and business.” The rest, as they say, is history. The Pamunkeys of today keep their own tribal council and maintain a reservation of about 1,200 acres, some 500 of which are wetlands. About 75 residents live on the reservation, which is also home to the gravesite of the great Chief Powhatan and a terrific museum describing the Pamunkey’s history.
Shad were always a part of that history. The Pamunkeys used the fish for food, for trade, for money. But even in the early 20th century, they were attuned enough to the vagaries of the river and its species to know that hatching baby shad in a controlled environment and giving them a head start in a river full of predators could help the population grow. Their first hatchery had an 800-gallon holding tank, a gas-powered motor for circulating the river water, and hatching jars. During the 1950s the hatchery started using “tidal boxes” - wooden boxes with mesh floors that floated in the river itself. In 1989 a new hatchery with tanks and pumps was built, and it grew steadily until 1998, when a huge upgrade - using a $90,000 Chesapeake Bay Program grant and matching state money - brought the hatchery to its present form: 15 tanks, 250 gallons each, 24 hatching jars, a maze of white PVC pipes, flanges and valves connecting them all to holding tanks filled with river water. In 2001, the hatchery released about 3.2 million shad fry into the river, and some years it has managed up to 5 million. Fry from this hatchery were used to start successful restoration efforts on the Susquehanna and James rivers.
For five to six weeks each spring, the hatchery buzzes with frantic activity as fishermen like Langston bring in the fertilized eggs. They’re placed in tall plastic cylinders - three-gallon hatching jars that can hold up to 100,000 eggs - where they swirl slowly as pumped water constantly moves around them; if left still, Langston says, they’ll die. Dead eggs, which look a lot like tapioca, are siphoned off constantly. When the live ones start hatching, the jars are hung next to the 250-gallon tanks swirling with tea-colored river water. At this stage, the fry are barely visible, the size of a needle’s eye, transparent with two black flecks for eyes. As they’re born, the current moves them up the hatching jar, over its lip and into the big tank. Here, after three days (they’re born with a three-day food supply conveniently hanging in a pouch beneath their throats) they grow and swim and eat brine shrimp that are squirted into the tanks every five minutes, 24 hours a day.
After about 15 days, the tiny fish are tagged - not in the way you imagine, but chemically, by introducing oxytetracycline into the tanks. The chemical penetrates the fish’s ear bone, which grows in circles like the rings of a tree. That ring - distinctive to this hatchery - will show up clearly under a microscope, and through this tagging, scientists can track the fish. After being tagged, the fry are released straight into the river at night - the better to avoid predators, Henry Langston says. They’re only about the size of a sharp pencil tip, and their long, mysterious journey downriver to the Bay and then to open ocean, hopefully to return here in a few years to spawn, begins.
Out on the river, the day is waning. Meadows of tuckahoe sprout along the marshy shoreline of the reservation, where ospreys hunch in oak and cypress trees fuzzy with the first brilliant green of spring. Langston points to the little creek where, when he was a youngster, he would launch his boat on the high ground and paddle out to the river. The floor of Langston’s boat is flecked with fish scales, like silvery petals. He has always fished, and even though it’s harder these days - age is catching up to him, he says - he probably always will. “Go ahead,” he says as he gently slides a roe shad back into the immutable dark river, “go ahead.”
This story is adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s book Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, published by the Mariners’ Museum in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.