East Arcadia — Two fishermen loaded their aluminum johnboat onto its trailer, battling the swift flow of the Cape Fear River, which kept sweeping the stern downstream. They were returning from a 20-mile round trip upriver to Lock and Dam No. 1 after launching at International Paper’s landing on Riegel Course Road because the ramp at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Park beside the lock was closed.
“We don’t mind the ride because we kept seven shad,” said Rob McEachern, 72, a retired airline pilot from Wilmington. “Last week, we released 150 bucks before we kept our limits of five roes each.”
Buck shad, or males, are more abundant at the beginning of the run according to McEachern, while roe shad, or females, arrive later. Roe shad are prized for their eggs.
“I usually go three times a week during the run, which begins in March and lasts until May,” he said. “This year, we’ve only gone once a week because of the long ride.”
“The water is high and muddy,” said Todd Shaffer, also of Wilmington. “That’s why the run slowed. It will pick back up when the water goes down.”
The pair was not upset the ramp at lock was closed, merely inconvenienced. They welcomed the scenic ride, including sightings of turkeys, deer, wood ducks and otters.
The reason the ramp at the lock was closed was a project aimed at restoring the historic runs of shad and other migratory fish. Three locks and dams on the Cape Fear were built during the early 1900s to enable navigation. Now commercial traffic flow has ended and the Corps proposed abandoning operation of the locks and dams because its sole role is enabling commercial traffic.
However, many entities were uncomfortable with the Corps’ abandonment proposal. The Cape Fear River Basin Action Plan for Migratory Fish was developed with the Corps and other stakeholders and covers the entire river basin, including construction of a rock arch rapid, the first project of its kind in the Eastern U.S. Large rocks were placed over the dam and extend downstream. The rocks create pools. Migratory fish of eastern rivers can leapfrog over the rapids, resting in the pools between jumps. The project maintains the dam’s integrity and upstream water level, which serves as the reservoir for potable water for Wilmington and Brunswick County. If the dam had been removed to facilitate fish migrations, governments would have had to locate another water source.
However, something had to be done to save a shad population that had been reduced by 87 percent from historic levels. The population decline is so severe that the American shad creel limit for recreational anglers was recently reduced from 10 fish per day to five. Atlantic sturgeon, shortnose sturgeon, and blueback herring and alewife, known collectively as river herring, are endangered. The creel limit for hickory shad suffered the same reduction as for American shad, but there are few of the shad species in the Cape Fear.
Other methods of fish passage were found lacking. These included a fish ladder and a bypass that would have snaked through surrounding wetlands. The most reliable way of passing fish had been operating the lock during migration peaks. But that only helped a small percentage of fish to swim upstream.
Observers can see the rapid working, and further supporting evidence has been gathered from tagging.
“We could already see shad leaping through the rapids to swim over the dam,” Shaffer said. “It is something to watch.”
Historically the shad run occurred all the way to Clinton, but is also blocked by Lock and Dam Nos. 2 and No. 3. If the rock arch rapid at Lock and Dam No. 1 proves effective, similar projects may be planned for those structures as well.
The anglers caught their fish using spinning rods with 8- and 10-pound test monofilament. They used 1/8-ounce crappie jigs with twisty-tailed grubs, along with some larger jigs ones and they rigged them two at a time.
“They really fight hard, whether you hook a double or one at a time,” McEachern said. “But if you catch one lure in the landing net, it’s a sure bet the fish will pull the hook loose on the other one and get away.”
The boat ramp at the Lock and Dam No. 1 was supposed to be open for this year’s shad run. However, its opening was delayed by an unexpected hole near the lock chamber that had to be repaired. Another unexpected event for the anglers was a change in current. A scour hole below the dam was filled with rocks, creating eddies at the sides of the river that held mats of floating debris.
“I think the high water brought lots of woody stuff downstream and it collected in the eddies,” McEachern said. “We watched an old tennis shoe go round and round. But when a hole cleared, we make a cast into it and catch a shad every time.”
The anglers took the longer boat ride and snag-filled eddies in stride. They were optimistic about future trips.
“I am in favor of anything that will help the fish,” Shaffer said. “They have given me lots of fun and good eating over the years. I cut them thin across the backbone and fry them like a potato chip or bake them at 350 degrees with some bacon and lemon. I mix roe with chicken eggs and fry it. Fix shad and roe with hushpuppies, potato salad and sweet potato fries and you’ve really got a treat.”