Picture Credit: Chris Muldrow


Are you ready to dive into one of Stafford County’s best-kept secrets? If you’re a nature enthusiast or simply enjoying witnessing the wonders of the natural world, then you’re in for a treat. We’re talking about the annual phenomenon known as the “shad run”.


Shad who?

First things first, let’s get acquainted with our stars of the show – shad and river herring. Their scientific name, alosa sapidissima, might sound like a mouthful, but these saltwater fish play a significant role in the ecosystem of the Rappahannock River. Every year, typically from mid-March to early May, these incredible creatures embark on a remarkable journey that captivates both locals and visitors alike.


But what are they doing here?

So why does this happen? Picture this: shad, originally inhabitants of the salty waters of the Atlantic, decide it’s time to make a pilgrimage. They traverse through the Chesapeake Bay, making their way into the freshwater of the Rappahannock River to spawn before returning home – if they’re lucky enough to make it. It’s a journey fraught with peril, but for these fish, it’s a cycle of life that has repeated for generations.

Fun fact: Did you know that shad were George Washington’s favorite fish? Legend has it that these fish helped sustain his troops during the harsh winters of the Revolutionary War. Talk about yet another historical connection right in our backyard!

Now, as you stroll along the riverbanks (or even your own front yard), keep your eyes peeled and your wits about you. Ospreys, those majestic birds of prey, are always on the hunt during the shad run. With eyesight sharper than an eagle’s, they dive from the skies to snatch up their next meal. But here’s the catch – sometimes they bite off more than they can chew, quite literally. It’s not uncommon to see them dropping their catch mid-flight, so watch your head!


Can I join in on the fun?

Speaking of feasting, it’s not just the ospreys and bald eagles who indulge in the bounty of the shad run. Nature enthusiasts flock to witness the feeding frenzy, a spectacle that reminds us of the intricate balance of life in the world.

Perhaps you’ve heard whispers of an old tradition known as “shad planking.” In the Stafford region, events like these were once common, harkening back to the days of early settlers and indigenous peoples. Shad, attached to wooden planks, are cooked slowly over an open fire for up to six hours, imparting a deliciously smoky flavor. It’s a culinary experience steeped in history and tradition.

Now, before you break out your fishing gear, a word of caution. To protect the delicate balance of the ecosystem and ensure the continued survival of these remarkable creatures, it’s now illegal to possess river herring. For more information on regulations be sure to visit the VMRC website.


So, why not plan a visit to Stafford County this time of year? Immerse yourself in the beauty of the shad run, where nature puts on a show like no other. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie looking for a unique culinary experience, or simply someone who appreciates the wonders of the natural world, the shad run is an experience you won’t soon forget. So grab your binoculars, pack a picnic, and get ready to witness the magic of nature unfold before your eyes!



Sources: Scenic Hudson, Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, Chris Muldrow