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Mattaponi Tribe: An ancient tradition is threatened by the loss of the American shad

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Calvin and Mac Custalow take their niece, Dawn Custalow, fishing on the Mattaponi River at their reservation. The traditional Easter Sunday service breakfast of shad and shad roe now relies on other fish as the American shad continues to puzzle scientists as to what is causing its decline.

Easter Sunday

Every Easter, my Tribe celebrates with a Sunrise Service just outside our church on the reservation along the banks of the Mattaponi River in eastern Virginia.

My Uncles-- Uncle Mac and Uncle Calvin are singing. Uncle Mac is the bass. My dad and my four uncles used to sing in a traveling gospel group. Now, in their eighties, Uncle Mac and Uncle Calvin mostly sing at church services.

Afterward our community lines up for the traditional fish fry breakfast.

Chip Langston, my uncle’s second cousin, not only caught some of our breakfast, he also helped to cook it. "We cooked rockfish and we cooked shad and we cooked shad roe and we cooked scrambled eggs," Chip says. "We cooked sausage, and we cooked catfish. We had a lot of help this morning and it was great."

Uncle Mac and Uncle Calvin also contributed some fish. Like my father, my uncles have been fishing their whole lives. But there’s one species of fish that’s been harder and harder for them to catch. It’s also a species that’s long been important to our tribe and our traditions. It’s the American shad.

Our ancestors taught colonists the value of shad. I spent a lot of my childhood fishing with my dad and my uncles at our reservation. Back then fishing was still a livelihood and a passion of the Indians. It was woven into our being by our ancestors. When I was a kid, there would be an abundance of shad on Easter Sunday. Now, shad are nearly gone.

I’m Dawn Custalow, an enrolled member of the Mattaponi Tribe. In this episode, we look back on my tribe’s history with the American Shad and learn why this species might be disappearing. We’ll also hear how Indigenous fishing practices could be the answer to bringing it back. This is Tribal Truths Podcast.


It’s the week before Easter and I’m driving from my home in Roanoke to go fishing with my uncles. I’m headed back to my childhood home on the Mattaponi Reservation in King William County, Virginia.

Our reservation is one of the oldest in the United States. It’s a small reservation, around 150 acres. Most tribal members have moved to nearby towns and cities. My father, Cecil Custalow, passed away in 2001. There are only two brothers left from the five sons of Dewey and Pocahontas Custalow. Uncle Calvin is 86 and Uncle Mac at 81, is the youngest of the five. Uncle Mac lives here part-time in my grandparent’s white, two-story farmhouse. Built at the turn of the last century, it’s where my grandmother gave birth to all her boys. And it’s where I started out in life too.

I have so many memories of the reservation. Unfortunately, living far away makes it difficult to return for visits.

The last time I fished here was with my dad when I was a teenager. Since then, I went to university, became a teacher, got married, had two sons and lived in Europe for 12 years. I haven’t had the chance to take my boys fishing here but I’m still holding out that they can have this experience one day.

When I pull up to my grandparent’s old house Uncle Calvin and Uncle Mac are working on getting the boat and nets ready. If you remember from their singing, Uncle Mac is the one with the deep voice.

"What we can do if you want to is if you want to just take one shad net for right now and then come back and get a herring net to put out," Uncle Mac says. "Or just take the herring net and not fool with the shad net, whatever."

"Whatever you want," Uncle Calvin adds.

"Let’s do shad!" I say.

"Well, we’ll try. There’s not much out there," Mac says.

As they pack I take a look around.

Earlier, I heard the mourning doves. The other sound down here that’s really beautiful is on my grandparent’s house is a tin roof. So when I was little and we would sleep upstairs, my brother and I, in the room where my uncles were, we could here the pattering of the rain on the roof. It’s a really special sound.

My dad had moved off of the reservation here and he and my mom were working in Richmond. But they were just getting established there and just didn’t want to take us, we were really little, because there was no one to care for us in Richmond, all of our family was here. So, my brother and I lived here on the reservation with our grandparents and our parents would come back on the weekends.

Uncle Calvin and Uncle Mac, the ones who are with us today who got married later and they lived here in the house along with Uncle Ralph, who was the oldest, who never got married. So when we came here, it was not only to visit our grandparents, but we had time with our uncles. So we were either in the garden with them or fishing with them. And of course, my mom and my dad were here on the weekends.

The reservation boat landing is down from my grandparents’ house. There’s a warehouse-like building perched over the water nearby. This was our state-subsidized hatchery built in 2000. It’s no longer being used.

My uncles pack their 16-foot double-wide Jon boat while it’s on the trailer. The gill net goes into a barrel and onto the boat. I get a refresher on gill nets.

"This is a cork line, where the corks go on," Uncle Calvin explains. "You hang your net, your webbing to this and you got a certain length that you put on. Come on around with me. That’s what holds this on."

"This is called hanging twine, that string right there," Mac demonstrates. "You have to buy the net, the hanging twine, the corks line, the corks, and then you make the net. That’s a shad net which is larger to catch shad and rockfish. The herring net has a small mesh and to catch herring and the perch and smaller fish."

I cross the road and walk to the steep embankment that overlooks the river. I look for our old fishing shed. But it’s gone. It was where my dad and his oldest brother Uncle Ralph kept all their nets. After a long morning of fishing on the river, they’d pack their catch on ice and load the coolers onto their trucks. Then they’d drive to a local restaurant in Mechanicsville called The Italian Kitchen to sell their freshly caught shad.

I think it’s time to fish so I head down to the water.

I was probably 13 years old the last time I was fishing here, so this is a big day for me.

It’s time to fish. As we push off from the launch, my uncles get a not so hopeful report from a tribal member returning from early morning fishing. "Catch any shad up there," Mac asks?

"No shad, no where," he answers.

And with a late start, we’re going out between tides when the water isn’t moving fish into our nets. That increases the odds against us. Uncle Calvin explains. "The tide is about over right now so uh, whatever we do we do. We just went there and checked the river it’s still going up a little bit. It’s getting to be almost, what we call slack water. That’s when you’re tide goes up or down and then it turns and goes the other way."

It would be great to taste the tender white meat of shad and the rich salty, sweet shad roe after such a long time. Fish connects me to the reservation. It’s evocative of the meals with my family and at tribal events.

So a lot of times we were with our grandfather out here in the boat. And it wasn’t shad or anything, we’d fish with poles. So like a cane pole and it just has a line on it and a small cork so it bobs in the water. You know you’d see your little cork go in the water and it wasn’t a rod and reel, you’d just yank up and hopefully, you’ve got that fish. And you’d just fish like right outside of the boat. My grandfather would take us over in the reeds and say, “I know a good place to fish" and he always did. Whenever we went with our grandfather, Papa, we always caught fish. Out here you catch perch and catfish. If you catch an eel usually you tied your line up, and you had to cut your line and throw it back. We didn’t really eat the eels. Now of course in the spring, in this time period we’re in not, that was net fishing and once again that would be for herring, shad and rockfish.

But it was not just a sport, we would eat them. We would come in from the river on that day and our uncles would scale the fish and cut them up and granny had them in the pan for dinner. And they were really good. So that’s what I remember about my grandmother, because whatever was brought to her— fish, deer meat, wild turkey— whatever was brought to her then she was busy in the house preparing all the things that her sons and her husband were bringing in.

"I was born and raised here and fished all my life since I was a little bitty boy. People here used to fish a great deal when the older people were here and used this time of year to supplement their incomes," Unlce Mac remembers. "There was a lot of fishing going on."

Shad are the first sign of spring. Every year schools make their way from the Atlantic to the Chesapeake Bay and finally up freshwater rivers - the only places they can spawn. Fish like this are called anadromous.

Our river used to be filled with the shimmering silver scales of shad. Uncle Mac says they look like diamonds. Their arrival would peak on our river just before Easter. For our ancestors it meant fresh fish after a long winter.

But during the 1800’s, settlers depleted the population of fish. Dams, pollution and other factors made river conditions worse. In 1994, concerned with the dwindling American shad population, the state stopped all shad fishing, except for the Virginia Indian communities.

"Our 1677 treaty guarantees us the right to fish and oyster and anything that has to do with the water, the marine. But other than that the shad are under a moratorium and so are the herring. So, only the card-carrying Indians can fish," Mac notes.

Mac Custalow rows his john boat as his brother Calvin sets out gill nets.
Pamela D'Angelo
Mac Custalow rows his john boat as his brother Calvin sets out gill nets.

When we get to the right spot, Uncle Mac cuts the motor. He switches to his oars while Uncle Calvin little by little starts to lay out the long net.

As Uncle Calvin directs Uncle Mac, you can hear a rhythm of the rowing and the nets being set out.

"I don’t know if any of my grandchildren know how to handle a net," Mac says.

"I think for some it might be easy to learn, but I don’t think they’ve had that opportunity," I respond.

The opportunity for the Custalow grandchildren and great grandchildren to learn how to handle a net has been replaced by social media, technology, and a faster pace of life. And most of my cousins live pretty far from the reservation so they don’t have time to come down to fish. My two sons were born and lived in the Czech Republic for 12 years. They have never been fishing here.

We keep our eyes on the orange corks bobbing on top of the nets. When the fish get caught, the corks will go down.

Our river has always been important to us. Mattaponi means “people of the river.”

"Matt, Po and the Ni. They are three streams and they make the Mattaponi River. That’s the Mattaponi. Matt Po and Ni," Uncle Calvin notes.

"Those are small feeder streams and because of the fact that the river is the Mattaponi, they named the three streams the Matta the Po and the Ni," Mac adds.

"The way they got that name. The guy went to bed one night and was on the mat. He woke up the next morning and the mat was on top of him he said 'I upon the mat, the mat upon I.' Bad grammar but a great joke," Calvin says with a laugh.

The Mattaponi River is 103 miles long and has some of the highest tide changes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. It joins the Pamunkey River at West Point where it forms the York River then flows out to the Chesapeake Bay.

American shad spend most of their life in the ocean, except once a year, when they return to fresh water to spawn. In an effort to boost the shad population, in the early 1900’s our Tribe and the neighboring Pamunkey Tribe began operating shad hatcheries. This is where we harvested eggs, fertilized them, hatched them and released the babies, called fry, into the river. Later, state and federal programs subsidized the effort, bringing in their own methods. But still, shad are disappearing.

Click here to learn more about the American shad

My uncles say the old ways of hatching fry worked better. And they believe when the state introduced the invasive blue catfish for sport fishing, it messed up our hatchery efforts.

"It was a major mistake when they stocked them in this river because the blue cat is a predator and they eat up all the native fish," Mac contends. "Like the bass and crappie and brim and that sort of thing."

"Small shad anything they can eat they’ll get it," Calvin adds.

"They’re responsible for the decline in shad because they eat the fry. They eat the roe, the eggs and then they eat the fry when they hatch. And that’s a situation we didn’t have many years ago. We didn’t have those blue cats," says Mac.

We fish with the first net and then return to get another one that will catch bigger fish. By early afternoon, we’ve caught perch, hickory shad, and rockfish. As my Uncle Calvin pulls in the net, sometimes a rockfish expels a white substance. Uncle Mac explains. "That’s what’s known as the melt. It’s the male fish sperm. And that’s what they cross with humans and they come up with mermaids!"

Kidding aside, our total catch includes a single American shad. A female.

As we eat our lunch, Ben Adams, a neighbor from the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, drives up. Easter is a few days away and people are looking for shad and shad roe. “Do you have any Shad for sale," he asks?

"No Sir," Mac responds. "We caught one shad today. One single shad."

Our cousin Chip, whom you met earlier cooking fish, joins the group and the four men recall days when their boats were full. But if the general population were still fishing, it’s doubtful there would be any shad at all on our river.

After lunch, my uncles clean the fish and put away their nets. Tonight, I’ll eat the shad we caught for dinner. In the morning, I’ll have shad roe. It will be the first time in several years.

What happened to the shad

The dwindling shad population also has scientists concerned and we’re curious about their research. So, Uncle Mac and I head to a lab at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, part of the College of William & Mary. They’ve been studying shad since 1998. We’re hoping they will tell us why shad are disappearing from Virginia.

Eric Hilton is a professor of fisheries science and a leading fish scientist who curates for the Nunnalley Ichthyology Collection at VIMS. To get to his office you pass through a maze of bookcases containing volumes of facts and data on fish. There are containers of fish skeletons and other items for study. Some of the books date back to the 1800’s. Past the towers of books, we find his actual office which is a desk, surrounded by even more books.

After an introduction he shows us to the lab. Before us is a team of three marine scientists side-by-side processing their catch of the day for study.

Ashleigh Magee wields an electric knife, the kind you might use to carve your Sunday roast. Only she’s using it to take the head off a fish. She tosses the body into the sink next to her, exchanges the knife for tweezers and carefully extracts a tiny ear bone called an otolith from the head.

"We use these to age the fish," she explains. "They’re sort of like tree rings. You can age them. They have yearly rings that they put down."

Before the fish gets to Ashleigh, Timothy Hoyt, measures, weighs and determines the sex of each fish. He removes a fish scale, places it into a small manilla envelope held by Patrick McGrath, who sits at a computer entering data Timothy calls out. Later, the scales will be examined for marks made during spawning.

"So, when we look back if you see that ring has some erosion to it, you can tell that it spawned," Patrick says. And like the ear bones, the scales contain information similar to tree rings. "So, we’ll combine the ages of the otolith, so say an otolith is age seven and we see there have been two or three spawn marks on it, we know probably age four it started spawning and it’s spawned every year after that."

We also know that shad can live to be 10 or 11 years old. "Making it to 10 or 11 is pretty impressive for a species that is essentially food for an entire suite of prey," Patrick admits.

Being eaten is just one problem for shad. Shad are caught along with other fish by local commercial fishermen and commercial trawlers out in the Atlantic. This is called bycatch and a certain amount is allowed.

Mac Custalow and Eric Hilton (background) stand before a cooler of American shad the VIMS team obtained for research from a local pound net fisherman.
Pamela D'Angelo
Mac Custalow and Eric Hilton (background) stand before a cooler of American shad the VIMS team obtained for research from a local pound net fisherman.

Eric points to a white board that keeps track of different species caught in different rivers by the scientists so far this year. Shad barely registers. "Well, you can see our leader board so over time these are our catches. Starting Feb 16. James, there was two today," he says.

"Nothing in the York," Mac notes.

"It’s a sad year for the York River," Patrick adds.

Tell me about it," Mac says. "Of course they have to come through the York to get to us. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in 70 years of fishing. I’d be interested in hearing what you think is the reason for the decline."

"The York River is a mystery to me," Patrick says. "And I’ve said this to other people – in the James and the Rappahannock and the Potomac and the Susquehanna, in almost every major river you have a fall zone. You have a transition from this tidal river with rapids to a regular flowing river that’s non-tidal. The York is not. The York has also never been dammed. And, all that leads me to give you the big, 'I don’t know.' The York River has always been a big question mark in my head as to what’s going on and why does it sometimes behave like the other rivers and sometimes not."

"We’re stuck," Eric admits. "We’re stuck on why it might be that they’re not coming back now twenty-something years of no commercial pressure."

That brings us back to tribal run hatcheries and the one we started in 1917. Uncle Mac explains how they worked. "The way we used to hatch fish, and I still think it’s still the most effective. We put poles in the water at a given space and then we built boxes. We built them and we floated them, we tied ropes to both ends and tied it to a stake here and a stake here and in between. And we had a screen a top that went on it with screen wire so things couldn’t get in or out of it. But we would spawn our fish in a gallon can. And then we put it into those boxes with a screen on it. And that was all natural. And the eggs would stay in it until they would hatch. And then we would monitor. So you didn’t have to worry about pumps or something mechanical going bad or whatever, you know, God’s in control, his plumber’s always there. We used the boxes certainly up until 60’s, 70’s, maybe even later, I don’t know. Until, we got quote unquote, we got something better. We got all this thing. Now we got water pumps and a well. We got the best of the best. Well, ah, I challenge that a little bit," Mac says with a laugh. "When you take it away from natural to something that’s under controlled conditions, which is best."

Then I ask, how has the health of the rivers played into the disappearance of the fish?

"That is the million dollar question, I guess. I don’t think there’s ever going to be the silver bullet answer," Eric answers.

Eric told us shad are up against blue catfish, warming waters from climate change, and sediment from waterfront development that suffocates the fish eggs. There’s also farming irrigation systems along riverbanks that suck in water and whatever fish swims by, like baby shad.

"Typically they don’t spawn until you get into the upper regions of the rivers and that’s where, in most cases, where your farmland is and where the water is extracted. So that, in and of itself, is a huge factor," Mac notes.

Dams are another big problem, though there are none on the York or the Mattaponi Rivers. Dams block shad and other anadromous fish from getting to their spawning grounds.

My uncle turns the discussion to Walkers Dam on the Chickahominy River. It was built during World War II to supply water to military operations in Newport News. "You know Walkers Dam. Well, because, I am half Mattaponi and half Chickahominy. My mother was from the Chickahominy Tribe. So, my grandfather supported his family, he was one of the last of the professional hunters and fishing and he made his living and fed his family from the land. And fishing was one of the things he did was a very big factor. They caught a lot of white shad. But then after the dam, and I’m sure that affected it. Because now, you’ve taken away spawning grounds, all of which are subjected to the salinity of water. So, the closer you are to the salt water, the higher the salinity of the water. And when you put the dam in they can’t go further to the pure, cleaner, fresher water to spawn. Then after a number of years you don’t have adult fish coming in to spawn, which is my theory."

"When was the big catches that you saw," Eric asks?

"I’m thinking, oh, this was probably late 20’s, 30’s during that time era. I know my grandfather was just super upset when it happened. Because he told them his opinion and he was right of what they were doing and what it was going to do to the fish and the wildlife," Mac responds. "He told them because he was a man who was born way back in the 1800’s and had lived through and worked and lived off of that sort of thing and was, if you will, quote unquote an expert because of his knowledge and experience. And he told them what they were doing. That they were going to destroy it. And they did for reasons. So, like I said, because my dad fished with my grandfather during that period of time, during the 20’s and 30’s. And that was a hey day because he had had haul seines, not drift nets. Dad talked about bringing the nets in and having to go out and take a smaller boat and go out and lift the net to let fish out because they had so many fish they couldn’t bring them in. Easter weekend was the height of the season.

As we end this episode, scientists are meeting with some tribal members in Virginia looking at the potential to restart the Pamunkey hatchery and ours. And Eric Hilton has expressed interest in our tribe’s original hatchery method described by Uncle Mac.

The shad on our river reflect the heritage and tribal life of the Mattaponi people. It is important that this fish be protected so that our future generations enjoy and benefit from this fish. It is also important that we do not lose this part of our Virginia Indian heritage that has long been caught up in our traditions, symbols and legacy as Native Americans in Virginia.

Learn more about Virginia's Tribes

The original song “Sunrise” was written by Pernell Richardson of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe and presented by Mattaponi Chief Mark Custalow. Gospel singing was Calvin and Mac Custalow, Theresa Custalow Hobbes accompanied on guitar by Kenneth Taylor.

Tribal Truths is reported, written and sound designed by Pamela D’Angelo. Kelley

Libby is editor. Additional editing by Dawn Custalow and David Seidel.

Support was provided by Virginia Humanities and Radio IQ. Other music in this episode by Blue Dot Sessions.