It's typically mid-February or early March when we start to see shad roe show up in Charleston. That's when the traditional Holy City favorite — shad egg sacks breaded, fried, or wrapped in bacon and often served with grits — begins making its appearance on local menus. This year, however, Mt. Pleasant Seafood
started selling shad roe last week.
"We got a batch this morning and had some last week as well," says Paul Specht of Mt. Pleasant Seafood. The retail store on Shrimp Boat Lane has been in business for over 70 years and Specht has worked their for 15 and says the early arrival is unusual. Then again he's come to expect the unexpected.
"It’s about a month early," he says of the shad that came from the Black and Santee rivers. "But it’s hard to keep up because seasons have been changing so much. I’m pretty positive we had shad and soft shell and fresh shrimp at the same time last year and that’s ridiculous."
An open water fish, shad moves into the fresh water when ready to drop eggs. "You throw a little grub and catch them and they fight like a tarpon and not a lot of people eat them," says Specht. "It's a fun fight, but not a great fish to eat per se. The fish is very oily and bloody and boney. The roe is the main attraction."
And has been for Charleston eaters for years. "It’s an old school thing," Specht says, adding that he has his regulars who seek the delicacy every year in early spring. For them, the January surprise shad is a bonus.
But should we be concerned? Is early shad roe an environmental reaction?
Water temperature plays a key factor in when the shad will return to the rivers says South Carolina DNR's Assistant Coordinator of Diadromous Fisheries Chad Holbrook.
"We have had years where the river would be unusually warm and we would expect more shad because they’re keying on that temperature," Holbrook says. "This is not one of those years. We’ve actually had winter, the river is really cold. It’s probably a below average temperature in the Santee. I couldn’t pin it back to a warmer than average river. It’s kind of one of those things, sometimes it’s difficult to explain why they returned so early in a cold river, but they did."
A better guess, Holbrook says, is that an enterprising fisherman took advantage of some early catch. Commercial shad season began on Jan. 15 and while Holbrook says DNR isn't seeing very many fish has yet to catch any shad, clearly some McClellanville fisherman got lucky.
Which means more roe for you and me. Right now shoppers can buy a whole shad with roe from Mt. Pleasant Seafood for $4 a pound. Those who love the oily fish, can get one split without roe for $3 each or have it cleaned for $5. And if you're just looking for just the decadent roe, Specht can hook you up for $9.50.
That said, you won't see him eating any shad — "I have to clean them!" he says. But he's happy to serve those with the acquired taste.
If you need shad some inspiration, check out The Lee Bros. Charleston Kitchen
cookbook which includes a recipe for a shad roe mousse and a wine-infused shad roe spread on buttered crackers.