(Hartford Courant) Sen. Linares: “The Haddam Shad Museum is one of a kind.”

April 29, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

Quirky Shad Museum Honors State Fish

By ERIK HESSELBERG, Special to The Courant
Fri Apr 26 2013 7:31 PM

Retired dentist Dr. Joseph Zaientz is obsessed with shad, the fish that returns from the ocean each spring to spawn in the Connecticut River.

In his museum, Zaientz shows a memento that speaks of his special relationship with Alosa sapidissima; it’s a sculpted fish carved with his former dental tools.

“That was done by Harry Ross,” Zaientz says. “He was one of my patients. I used to give him my broken dental tools for his carving, so he gave me that fish.”

It’s one of many artifacts on display in this quirky museum behind a gas station — The Haddam Shad Museum, which Zaientz started more than a decade ago. This shrine to the state fish is open to the public fewer than a dozen days a year — only on Sundays during shad season (which is now through mid-June).

“The Haddam Shad Museum is one of a kind,” said Sen. Art Linares, D-Westbrook, who recently presented Zaientz with a special proclamation from the General Assembly recognizing the museum’s role in preserving Connecticut River history. “I would encourage more people to come and see the rich material Dr. Zaientz has on display.”

Shad, the largest member of the herring family at nearly 2 feet long and weighing several pounds, spend most of their lives in the ocean, returning to New England’s coastal rivers each spring to spawn in the waters where they were born. But the market for shad, and especially the tasty shad roe, has declined, as an older generation brought up on this seasonal delicacy passes on. Today, only a few boats go out on the river to lay drift nets for shad, where once there were scores of fishermen.

“Shad is a geriatric fish,” says Zaientz, now 75, with a grin. “Our generation grew up eating shad, but most young people never heard of it.”

Indeed, visitors to the shad museum are mostly silver-haired seniors, some struggling with walkers. But their eyes light up when they see all the old photographs and newspaper clippings from days gone by. Traditional shad fishing gear is also on display, along with mementos like the wooden crates in which the fresh catch was shipped on ice by steamboat to Boston and New York markets. There’s even a classic shad boat, a stout, square-ended vessel called a Brockway skiff, built by the late Earl Brockway of Old Saybrook.

“A shad dinner is something I really look forward to,” says Chester resident Lenny Kochanowski, 59, who used to net shad with Zaientz years ago. “Not many guys are fishing now.” Kochanowski’s assistant in his carpentry business, James Weston, 27, of Middletown, says he didn’t known what a shad was until he went to the museum. “The history is really interesting,” he says.

Zaientz started the shad museum in 1999, joining with George Bernard, a passionate sports fisherman and shad expert from Wallingford. Bernard, who died in 2008, amassed an extensive collection of shad-fishing memorabilia, including interviews with old-time Connecticut River watermen. “So many people were involved in this business,” Zaientz says. “We didn’t want to see this history disappear.”

The museum is in a former “shad shack,” which Zaientz acquired with the property and later restored. The building belonged to Bill Maynard, a widely known Haddam shad fisherman during the 1930s and 1940s. Maynard’s Shad Shack originally stood across the road, beside a gas station and farm stand that the fisherman operated in those years. Today, Zaientz proudly displays Bill Maynard’s shad “boning” knives, used to remove the fish’s three sets of bones, and his old cash register.

Zaientz jokes that when he bought the property, his Realtor advised demolishing the shad shack. “‘Don’t worry about that old building,’ she said. ‘You can push it down the hill with a bulldozer.’ I’m glad I didn’t take her advice.”

Zaientz’s dental practice was nearby, and it was here that he got his introduction to Connecticut River shad fishing. “I had a couple of patients, high school kids, who used to go out shad fishing in the season,” he says. “They asked me if I wanted to go with them.”

Zaientz says in the 1960s, when he came to town, local kids earned extra money fishing with their fathers during shad season. They also cut tobacco at Portland and Glastonbury farms and picked apples.

In those days, Haddam netters fished the “Maromas Reach,” a winding stretch of river from Middletown down to Haddam Island. Fishing is done at night, when the 300- to 500-foot gill nets — held down in the water by metal rings and buoyed by floats — are harder to detect. Zaientz doesn’t recall how many fish were taken that first night, but hauls in those days could be as high as 500 fish, compared to 40 or 50 today.

“Kids don’t go out on the river shad fishing at night anymore,” Zaientz says. “I guess they work at fast-food places to earn pocket money.”

The Haddam Shad Museum, 212 Saybrook Road behind the American Oil Gas Station in the town’s Higganum section, is open Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. until June 9. Admission is free. For more information, call 860-267-0388.