Thursday, April 07, 2005

Alewives: Bait, Roe and Testes

Alewives are among the first – maybe the first – of the anadromous fish to head upstream to spawn in spring. Next come striped bass and shad, then blueback herring. Sturgeon close out the season in early June.

At one time they all seemed to be as common as acorns. In his book Changes in the Land, William Cronon wrote about the reaction of the first European visitors:

The real statements of wonder came from visitors to the settlements, who saw the spring spawning runs of smelt, alewives, sturgeon, and other ocean fish which migrated to fresh water to deposit their eggs. William Wood described the arrival of the alewives 'in such multitudes as is almost incredible, pressing up such shallow waters as will scarce permit them to swim.' So thick did the fish become in some streams that at least one inhabitant fancied he might have walked on their backs without getting his feet wet. John Josselyn had no illusions about crossing streams on the backs of fish, but he was sure that he could have walked knee-deep through stranded herring across a quarter-mile of beach.

Those days are long gone. The great spawning runs died out in the 18th and 19th centuries with the damming of streams for mills, although in some rivers remnant spawning runs persisted. In my book, I reproduced a not-very-clear photo of men scooping herring from the vicinity of a dam on the Mianus River in the 1980s.

Today’s Greenwich Time has an interesting story from the Mianus, where anadromous fish have gotten a boost from a so-called fishway since 1993. This year the state of Connecticut installed a device to count spawning fish, and the first fish to come through have been the alewives.

Alewives, blueback herring and shad are all of the genus Alosa Alosa pseudoharengus, Alosa aestivalis, and Alosa sapidissima. In fact the word alewife is thought to be a derivation of Alosa, from the Latin word for shad, alausa.

Shad of course are a delight to eat. We had shad roe last night, in fact, cooked the way the Hudson River fishermen (or at least one of them) cooked it (scroll back to Feb. 11 to read it). As far as I know, alewives and blueback herring, if they’re caught at all anymore, are bony (as are shad, famously), and so are used mainly for bait. But in The Hudson River, A Natural and Unnatural History, Robert H. Boyle reports the following, apparently seriously:

The roe of a female alewife is only a quarter as large as that of a shad, but it is finer grained and has a more delicate and subtle taste. To me, the testes of the buck alewife are even tastier.

I’m a fan of shad roe, so I’d be happy to try two or three alewife roes. As for the testes, someone else give them a try and let me know what you think.


Anonymous John Waldman, Queens College said...

Years ago when I worked on a vessel for the the Hudson River's Westway study we caught some ripe alewives and threw some roe and milt sacks into a frying pan in the galley. The roe was good, much like shad roe. But the milt was better, tasting very much like lobster.

11:26 AM  

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