Sad Shad: Still blocked by Milburnie Dam after all these years

[This article was written in 2010, there is another public comment period open until Wednesday, December 14, 2011. You can view it here]

Shad close to home
BY JAVIER SERNA – Staff Writer
Raleigh News and Observer
April 16, 2010
Published in: Outdoors

RALEIGH A 2-pound American shad hen danced along the Neuse River’s surface and spun line off a medium-action spinning reel like a spool of kite string at the other end of a steady Atlantic breeze.

The scene is most common toward the coast, but there’s no need to truck down to the coast to satisfy the saltwater fishing urge.

For a couple of weeks, American shad have been concentrating at the Milburnie Dam in Raleigh, nearly 230 river miles upriver from the Pamlico Sound.

“They’ve come a long way,” said John Ellis, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who spends many spare spring hours pursuing American shad for the fun of it. “We’re pretty high up in the watershed.”

The American shad is one of several species that have been able to reach their former spawning grounds ever since a downstream dam was removed 12 years ago.

An electroshocking survey conducted near the Milburnie Dam last week by N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission biologists turned up several dozen American shad and even a couple of striped bass, typical of spring sampling for the past 10 years.

“It suggests that these fish are taking advantage of the spawning habitat in the upper part of the river,” said Bob Barwick, a state fish biologist.

Earlier in the spring, hickory shad, the smaller cousin of the American shad, also ran up the Neuse, the longest river that is completely within the state’s boundaries.

Ellis and several of his colleagues aren’t the only ones who get a kick out of fishing for shad during a run that typically lasts into May. Others use fly rods to cast brightly colored “junk” flies with success.

There’s no telling how many fish are kept, but state law allows a combination of 10 American and hickory shad to be kept per day, unless the angler is fishing the Roanoke River, where only one of those may be an American shad.

“They’re tasty,” said Ellis, who said he would like to see the limit for American shad lowered on the Neuse to help protect the species.

The state has considered doing so but has decided it against for now, Barwick said.

In North Carolina, American shad tend to spawn more than once in their lives. On the Neuse River, American shad could go only as far as the Quaker Neck Dam near Goldsboro until 1998, when the dam was removed, opening up 78 more miles of river.

The low-head dam had been built in 1952, and its removal reopened old spawning grounds primarily for American shad and striped bass.

The American shad population in the Neuse is viable enough that, until this year, state biologists removed shad from below the Milburnie Dam to be used in hatchery efforts to stock the Roanoke River, which has a struggling population of the species. Striped bass and hickory shad are more abundant on the Roanoke.

The collection stopped this year because, although there are still a few 4-pound females, considered good breeders, the numbers of bigger fish are dwindling in the Neuse.

“We’re worred about removing too many fish from the Neuse River,” Barwick said.

New water

A chance exists that more of the Neuse could be opened soon. An open comment period is being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding a proposal to remove the Milburnie Dam, which would add 15 free-flowing miles to the Neuse, making the Falls Lake dam the new dead end for migratory fish. The comment period closes April 22.

The project is a priority of the N.C. Dam Removal Task Force, which consists of staff from several state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Work could start in early 2011.

But there is some opposition, according to Randy Turner, the project manager for Restoration Systems Inc., the private environmental restoration and mitigation company that is undertaking the project.

Turner said some landowners near the dam are upset that the water levels above the dam will drop, making navigation with mid-sized watercraft impractical.

“It will never be as high,” he said.

But Turner said that aside from providing fish passage, the project will improve water quality, restore the natural habitat and aquatic community, and help up to eight state- or federally listed species of mussels and fish that were historically present in pre-dam conditions.

During rainy years such as this one, American shad tend to migrate higher up in the watershed in search of shallow rocky areas, which they prefer as spawning habitat. More of those areas await farther upstream.

Besides dam removal, American shad would be helped by more water.

The Army Corps, which regulates the water releases from Falls, has given more consideration to the needs of the spawning fish, Ellis and Barwick said. Informal discussions have been held about scheduled water releases.

“We’d like to see it a bit more formalized,” Ellis said. “It would be good for the fish if they would give us more water on a more regular basis in the spring, when the flows are high.”

Waders helpful

For now, the Milburnie Dam is the dead end.

For anglers, carefully wading out on the rocky ledge just in front – ideally with felt-sole boots and chest waders – is an option. And calmer pools inside 100 yards downstream from the mason structure also hold American shad.

Regardless, most prefer to stalk shad in waders rather than be confined to stream’s edge.

“It certainly opens up your options,” Ellis said. “That’s the advantage. You can get away from people.”

From the bank, Ellis caught a buck American shad within a few casts.

“We’ll invite him to dinner,” he said.

But the shad declined the invitation and slipped from his grip, escaping to the muddy waters of the Neuse.

Several hundred yards downstream of the dam, hand-tied shad rigs consisting of a small spoon and dart were cast out into the current with medium-action spinning gear.

First, a shad in the 1-pound class was hooked. It had about the same amount of fight in it as an equally sized hickory shad. It bled from a deep hookset and was kept for the table.

The next fish was twice the size, full of eggs, and it tested the drag system of medium-action spinning tackle. An acrobatic fish, it was coaxed to the water’s surface more than once, each time making a desperate run back into the murky, muddy water. Eventually, the hook was carefully removed and the fish was slipped back into the river.

With any luck, the descendents of that fish will be back in four or five years. or 919-836-4953

Open comment

The proposal to remove Milburnie Dam can be viewed at

Comments, which are due April 22, should be delivered to:

Jamie Shern, Raleigh Regulatory Field Office

3331 Heritage Trade Dr., Suite 105, Wake Forest, NC 27587.