EAST ARCADIA — Every year the American shad, also know as the white shad, leaves the open waters of the North Atlantic to enter safer fresh waters all along the East Coast in order to spawn.
In North Carolina, the fish make the trek up the Cape Fear River, sometimes traveling as far as 150 miles inland to reach the oxygen-rich rapids, rocky ledges, and gravel riverbeds around Harnett County that make for an ideal spawning and nursery habitat. The running of the shad typically lasts between six and eight weeks between February and May and, going back to colonial days, has been a major source of both income and nourishment along the Cape Fear River.
In Bladen County and the surrounding areas, the annual run was also a time of celebration and community gatherings. Lining up along the shore, hopefuls would cast their nets into the river and haul in the bounty provided by nature’s cycle. Sharing, as the Bible calls it, the “firstfruits of their labor” with family and neighbors was an understood and welcomed gesture, and created a spirit of community along the river during the spring.
It is this spirit of community that the Lower Bladen Columbus Historical Society wants to demonstrate and celebrate at this year’s Cape Fear River Shad Festival on Saturday.
“We’ve always been close in terms of our neighbors,” said Earnestine Keaton, one of the organizers of the event. “Blacks and whites alike — we all share a common heritage and traditions.”
The day’s events will start at 10 a.m. and will include a presentation by Keaton on how Duncan King (1729-1793) and George Dickson (1865-1947), a former pirate and a former slave, colonized the East Arcadia and Sandyfield areas.
Deloris “Cookie” Brown will demonstrate how to fry shad and steam roe.
“She (Cookie) came along when they didn’t have a Piggy Wiggly,” said Keaton, “and she saw her mother and aunts cooking roe. It’s considered a delicacy, and everybody that comes to the festival waits around for that.”
Hush puppies, slaw and lemonade will accompany the fried shad and steamed roe, and hot dogs will be provided for the less adventurous.
Festival-goers will be treated to southern soul music, and Keaton reported that, since the festival’s inception in 2009, singing along with the entertainment has been part of the celebration.
“First-time visitors are always surpised that we do that,” she mused.
Children can color in coloring books that have been supplied by the Army Corp of Engineers and can participate in making their own fishing pole.
“I’ve had people call from places like Dunn and Fuquay-Varina asking when it’s going to be,” stated Keaton. “Everyone is welcome.”
The Cape Fear River Shad Festival will take place at Lock and Dam No. 1 on Saturday, April 16, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There is no charge for the event, but donations will be accepted.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.