Shad Identification

This article was written in March 2015, but not published until June.

American Shad - Alosa sapidissima
American Shad – Alosa sapidissima

In North Carolina, members of the family Clupeidae include the herrings, shad, and menhaden. Although members of this family can be found year round, we wanted to specifically mention them today due to the annual spring spawning runs that a few of these species make. Starting in about February, and running through May, the sexually mature (and normally marine) Hickory Shad, American Shad, Blueback Herring, and Alewife Herring will enter area rivers and swim up them to reach their spawning grounds. It is during this time that anglers will commonly encounter them, and with any luck, catch them.

Identification of the various Clupeiform fishes becomes vitally important during their spawning runs, as different rules apply to different species, in different waterbodies. Currently in North Carolina, on the Neuse River, you can keep 10 shad (American or Hickory) in combination, including no more than 1 American shad. For more information, see:

http://www.ncwildlife.org/Portals/0/Regs/Documents/2014-15/Fishing_Regulations.pdf

The aim of this post is to help in identifying the American Shad from the Hickory Shad, as these are the two that we receive the most questions about, and the two most commonly caught on hook and line. If you wish to learn about the other river herrings, please see this pamphlet by the NCWRC:

http://216.27.39.103/Portals/0/Fishing/documents/Herring_Shad_ID_guide_sm.pdf

 

Hickory shad - Alosa mediocris - Top American Shad - Alosa sapidissima - Bottom
Hickory shad – Alosa mediocris – Top
American Shad – Alosa sapidissima – Bottom

American Shad Identification:

American Shad - Alosa sapidissima
American Shad – Alosa sapidissima

The American Shad, Alosa sapidissima, is the largest of all the herrings. Commonly reaching sizes of 50 cm SL (19.6 inches, Standard Length). Like all shad in this article, they have a silvery, metallic sheen, with blues and greens on top, fading to white below. They also have a row of scales on their bellies, known as ventral scutes. These scales are saw-like, very noticeable, and serve as a method to distinguish the river herring  and shads from the sea herrings, which lack these scales. One of the most obvious features to aid in identifying them, is the lower jaw. The lower jaw of the American Shad does not protrude beyond the upper jaw when fully closed. This will become a lot more obvious in the following sections. The American Shad has 59-73 gill rakers on the lower limb of the first gill arch.

Ventral scutes of a Hickory Shad ventral scutes
Ventral Scutes

 

Hickory Shad Identification:

Hickory Shad - Alosa mediocris
Hickory Shad – Alosa mediocris

Hickory Shad are noticeably smaller on average than the American Shad. Commonly to 40 cm SL (15.7 Inches Standard Length). Hickory Shad also have ventral scutes as in the above photograph. The lower jaw of the Hickory Shad protrudes beyond the upper jaw when fully closed. The Hickory Shad has approximately 20 gill rakers on the lower limb of the first gill arch.

Closed Jaws up close:

Hickory shad - Alosa mediocris
Hickory shad – Alosa mediocris

Here, in this photo above, you can see the lower jaw of the Hickory Shad protrudes a great deal past the upper jaw when the mouth is closed.

 

American Shad - Alosa sapidissima
American Shad – Alosa sapidissima

Here, in the photo above, you can see the lower jaw of the American Shad does not protrude beyond the upper jaw when the mouth is fully closed. The mouth is in fact open just a bit in this photograph.

Hickory shad - Alosa mediocris - Top American Shad - Alosa sapidissima - Bottom
Hickory shad – Alosa mediocris – Top
American Shad – Alosa sapidissima – Bottom

Some of the other more common Clupeids in our area include the Gizzard Shad, Dorosoma cepedianum, the Atlantic Menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, the Atlantic Thread Herring, Opisthonema oglinum, and the Threadfin Shad, Dorosoma petenense.

Atlantic Thread Herring - Opisthonema-oglinum - Top Atlantic Menhaden - Brevoortia-tyrannus - Bottom
Atlantic Thread Herring – Opisthonema-oglinum – Top
Atlantic Menhaden – Brevoortia-tyrannus – Bottom
Dorosoma cepedianum - Gizzard Shad - Top Brevoortia tyrannus - Atlantic Menhaden - Bottom
Dorosoma cepedianum – Gizzard Shad – Top
Brevoortia tyrannus – Atlantic Menhaden – Bottom
Atlantic Thread Herring - Opisthonema oglinum
Atlantic Thread Herring – Opisthonema oglinum

We will be adding additional photographs as we encounter them!

 

Ranges in North Carolina:

Alosa aestivalis Range in NC
Alosa aestivalis Range in NC
Alosa sapidissima Range in NC
Alosa sapidissima Range in NC
Alosa pseudoharengus Range in NC
Alosa pseudoharengus Range in NC
Alosa mediocris Range in NC
Alosa mediocris Range in NC

 

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Vermillion vs Silk Snappers

Lutjanus vivanus vs Rhomboplites aurorubens
Top: Vermillion Snapper – Rhomboplites aurorubens
Bottom: Silk Snapper – Lutjanus vivanus

 

Today we are starting a series of posts that will showcase some of the fishes we encounter on a weekly basis. We plan on including both common fishes, oddballs, a little biology, and lots of pictures! Often we find fishes that are everyday sights to us, may be very interesting to people who don’t have the luxury of seeing them as often. With that in mind, I wanted to start off by covering the differences between two common species of snapper that I saw today, the vermillion snapper (Rhomboplites aurorubens) and the silk snapper (Lutjanus vivanus). As adults these two species are easy to separate, as the silk snapper grows much larger, but between 10 and 20 inches these fishes are often mixed up.

Upon an initial glance, the two species seem awfully similar, they are both red, both snappers, and both have faint parallel yellow lines along their sides. Looking at a still picture of both fishes side by side, one obvious difference is the eye color.

 

Silk Snapper - Lutjanus vivanus - Close up
Silk Snapper – Lutjanus vivanus – Close up of Yellow Lines

 

Vermillion Snapper - Rhomboplites aurorubens - Close up
Vermillion Snapper – Rhomboplites aurorubens – Close up of Yellow Lines

 

Vermillion snapper have a red eye, while the silk snapper have a diagnostic yellow eye. The silk snapper also has yellow tinged pectoral fins, anal fin, dorsal fin, and caudal fin, where the vermillion is red all around. These yellow tinged fins may be subtle in the above picture, but are much more obvious in person. The vermillion snapper is rather slender compared to the silk, with a smaller head and shorter snout.

 

Silk Snapper - Lutjanus vivanus
Silk Snapper – Lutjanus vivanus

 

Vermillion Snapper - Rhomboplites aurorubens
Vermillion Snapper – Rhomboplites aurorubens

 

The vermillion snapper tends to live in more shallow water than the silk, and is often caught on headboats and charters while bottom fishing wrecks and reefs. The silk snapper on the other hand is generally caught in much deeper waters, and is rarely if ever seen on typical headboat trips.

Finally, both species can be distinguished from the fish they are most commonly confused with, the Red Snapper by the lack of pale yellow bands along its sides.

 

Lutjanus campechanus
American Red Snapper – Lutjanus campechanus

 

Silk Snapper - Lutjanus vivanus
Silk Snapper – Lutjanus vivanus

 

Vermilion Snapper - Rhomboplites aurorubens
Vermilion Snapper – Rhomboplites aurorubens

 

This post is intended to be as generic as possible while still helping readers identify their catch. If you need specifics, the following images will better assist you.

Vermillion vs Silk Snappers

 

Silk Snapper - Lutjanus vivanus
Silk Snapper – Lutjanus vivanus

 

Vermillion Snapper - Rhomboplites aurorubens
Vermillion Snapper – Rhomboplites aurorubens

 

And lastly, a few external links:

Silk Snapper

Vermillion Snapper

 

 

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