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Local tradition, sounds fishy. Shad!
Charlie Russo, Jr. bones up on his knife skills with a local shad, along with employee Blanca Perez. - photo by Jon Waits

WE TAKE a break from our regularly scheduled outrage to bring you a story that started long before the current state of affairs.

Once a year for millennia, as the rivers that spill freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean along the eastern edge of the continent warm from south to north, massive schools of a certain herring-like fish have returned home.

The American shad spends most of its life in the open sea, snacking on plankton and circling the waterways from Florida to Nova Scotia for four years as it reaches maturity, and when it’s time to spawn, both males and females make a mad detour towards the coast, following an internal GPS upstream of the exact river they themselves were hatched. Kind of a mind-blowing miracle, as the teenagers I know get lost on their way home from Wilmington Island.

This enduring rhythm is evidence of a clock that ticks further back than most can comprehend, and how shad continue to find their way in spite of dams, pollution and overfishing is another one of those natural mysteries that borders on the metaphysical. For those who appreciate the cycle of life and damn fine meal, shad season can be downright transcendental.

“The shad are running, the shad are running!” has been a ubiquitous spring cry since America’s founding days, and its abundance during February and March in the Savannah, Ogeechee and Altamaha rivers have fed many a grateful generation around these parts, from the native people who occupied the bluffs to the settlers scraping out survival in General Oglethorpe’s colony to current legions of Yeti cooler-wielding fisherfolk.

Low in mercury and other toxins and imbued with twice the amount of brain-nourishing Omega-3 fatty acids as wild salmon, shad has a Latin name, Alosa sapidissima, loosely translated as “super duper delish fish.” I’d been told for years that females fat with roe make the best eating, though I’ve managed to miss Savannah’s shad season in spite of chowing down aplenty on whiting, redfish, bluefish, and other local fruits des mer hooked by my own personal fisherman.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have known what to do with one of these legendary specimens if he’d hooked one. I think I handle fish pretty well considering I was raised in Arizona, where the only seafood I encountered came from a can or smoked on a bagel with cream cheese.

But shad can be intimidating, since it’s notoriously difficult to filet, on account of all them bones.

“If you don’t do it right, you’ll be pickin’ and spittin’ all day long,” advises Charlie Russo, Jr., the proprietor of Russo’s Seafood, where his father, Charles, Sr. perfected a technique that has employees like Blanca Perez able to slice up a shad in five minutes flat.

“Daddy is the one who started doing it like this in 1946,” he demonstrated last week, using his fingers to work over the rows of tiny bones of a fish that had been swimming upstream in the Altamaha less than a day before.

He gently pressed the peach-colored flesh with the tip of a long, curved blade. “See, you have to make three different cuts, and turn the knife upside down at the tail.”

Though I hold no illusions of ever being capable of executing this complex feat myself, I watched closely as Charlie and Bianca whisked their way through a few at Russo’s metal work stations across from Noelle Houston, who was deftly peeling a pile of plump wild Georgia shrimp, each almost as big as a banana. (True story, when I was a child growing up the desert I used to think all shrimp were the size of those tiny sea monkey things that floated in the sizzling rice soup at our neighborhood Chinese restaurant.)

Russo’s has to be at least partly responsible for shad’s popularity on Savannah dinner tables over the decades, making it easy to grab a nicely wrapped package from the refrigerated shelf for dinner instead of performing meticulous surgery. The famed family seafood market recently celebrated 70 years in business, a legacy left by the elder Russo, who passed away in 2008 at the age of 94, and carried on by his oldest son, whose demeanor isn’t nearly as salty as you’d expect for someone who’s spent his whole life cleaning fish and eating fish and just plain fishing.

Though he’s cast a line from Chesapeake Bay to the Mediterrean, the seafood scion has always called Savannah’s waters home.

“I moved away once, right after I graduated from Benedictine to work on a salmon boat in Alaska,” he recounts with a grin, blue eyes twinkling like the sea. “They were paying ten dollars an hour. That was a fortune in 1961!”

Upon his return from the Great North, the piscator took up the family mantle. He eventually married his high school sweetheart, Clara McDonough Russo, and the couple celebrated their 50th anniversary a few months before the beloved lady passed last March. Since then, he’s been working as hard as he always has, finding solace in another shad season.

He makes quick work of the one in front of him, laying out the filets in neat, pink slices.

He holds up the roe. Bright red and steaky, it looks more like a horse placenta than anything you’d want to put on a cracker. But this “redneck caviar” is the culinary prize, the real reason the shad chase has been celebrated all these years. The New York Times published Elizabeth on 37th chef Elizabeth Terry’s recipe back in 1987, and no mention of shad roe is worth a grain of salt without a bow to late, great chef and cookbook author Edna Lewis.

Charlie says Russo’s couldn’t keep the Atlanta Commerce Club stocked with it for fancy dinners back in the 90s. Yet these days you’d be hard pressed to find shad or its roe on any fine dining menu, even with many Savannah chefs’ dedication to local produce and heritage-raised meats. Why the decline in popularity?

Charlie gives a shrug without a skip in the blade. “The younger generations aren’t into it as much, I guess.”

Apparently some palates prefer their fish all light and flaky, and shad has a reputation for being too strong. I say there’s no such thing, but don’t ask me, I was raised on canned sardines.

I do know enough to respect tradition, and I prepared the filets and roe exactly as Charlie told me to: Dust both in salt and pepper, brush with lemon butter, and broil on a greased pan for 20 min, flipping the thick steak of roe halfway.

It tasted sapidissima to the max, as someone who has not studied Latin at all might say. The fish itself came out tender, with a robust flavor that reminded me of mackerel or herring.

The roe was still weird-looking but tasty, and once I got over its appearance I enjoyed the texture—soft meat infused with tiny, crunchy eggs. I do believe I’ll take redneck caviar over the Russian stuff any day.

According to Charlie, the shad should run for at least six more weeks, so there’s plenty of time to pick up some filets. If you care to throw in a line yourself, be sure to check the regulations at Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources, and should you get lucky and want to attempt shad surgery, Charlie’s brother, Capt. Vincent Russo, has a great tutorial on his YouTube channel.

Me, I’m content to leave the fishing to the fisherfolk. But that doesn’t make me any less enamored of shad’s yearly sojourn to our local waters or the ancient map that makes it possible, coded in all those tiny bones.

It makes a mind wander to the Great Mystery that binds us all, and just think: By the time the shad babies conceived this spring make their way back to their birthplace in four years, we’ll be in a whole new cycle.

We can only hold faith that nature’s revolutions will endure, eclipsing the rest in its long, slow clock.