Text Size: A  A  A

American Shad

Alosa sapidissima

The American shad is a thin river herring with a large dark shoulder spot. (Shermon Foote Denton)
The American shad is a thin river herring with a large dark shoulder spot. (Shermon Foote Denton)

Also known as white shad, the American shad is a thin river herring with a metallic body and dark spots on its shoulder. It visits the Chesapeake Bay each spring to spawn in freshwater rivers and streams.

Appearance:

  • Thin, metallic body varies in color from greenish to dark blue
  • Large dark shoulder spot may be followed by several paler spots
  • Large, easily shed scales come together at belly to form a saw-toothed edge 
  • Tail fin is deeply forked  
  • Grows 20 to 24 inches long. Can reach a length of 30 inches and weigh as much as 12 pounds. Females are larger than males 

Habitat:

  • Lives in coastal ocean waters  
  • Spawns in freshwater rivers and streams

Bay 101: American Shad from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

Range:

  • Visits the Chesapeake Bay each spring to spawn in freshwater rivers and streams, including the James, Potomac and Susquehanna rivers. After spawning, shad move downstream, leaving the Bay by summer 
  • During spawning season, American shad can be found in the rivers of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Outside of spawning season, American shad can be found in the coastal areas of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans  

Feeding:

  • In the ocean, American shad feed on plankton, crustaceans and small fish
  • Adults stop feeding once they begin their upstream spawning migration. Once water temperatures warm and spawning season ends, diets return to normal 

Predators:

  • Predators include bears, birds and large fish like striped bass, smallmouth bass, blue fish and channel catfish 

Reproduction and Life Cycle:

  • Shad are anadromous, which means they live in the ocean but spawn in freshwater rivers and streams
  • In spring, adults migrate to the waterway in which they were born to spawn 
  • Females lay 100,000 to 600,000 eggs over the course of several days. Eggs drift downstream and hatch in seven to 10 days  
  • After spawning, adults either die or return to the ocean  
  • Juveniles remain in nursery areas, where they feed on zooplankton and terrestrial insects
  • In early autumn, most juveniles leave the Bay for the ocean, where they remain for several years before returning to freshwater rivers to spawn 
  • Lives 6 to 10 years 

Other Facts:

  • The American shad is the largest and most well-known shad species. 
  • The largest American shad ever recorded was 2 feet, 6 inches long. The oldest American shad recorded in Maryland was 11 years old. 
  • Shad roe (or eggs) were once considered a delicacy in the Chesapeake Bay region. 
  • Shad have a tree named after them! The shadbush blooms in spring, close to the time that shad return to the Bay's rivers to spawn. 

Sources and Additional Information:




Click tabs to swap between type and habitat.

410 Severn Avenue / Suite 112
Annapolis, Maryland 21403
Tel: (800) YOUR-BAY / Fax: (410) 267-5777
Directions to the Bay Program Office
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
©2012 Chesapeake Bay Program | All Rights Reserved