On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending my first Shad Planking event at the Wakefield Sportsman Club in Wakefield, Virginia–a town 170 miles southeast of Washington, D.C. This was the 68th Annual Shad Planking event held to benefit the Wakefield Ruritan Club, which has put on the event since its inception. I was invited by the festival organizers to be a featured blogger for the event.
Shad Planking was originally dominated by Democrats and was once exclusive to males. Over the course of its 68th-year existence, the event has grown to include women and expand its reach to right-leaning audiences. Moreover, this year in particular, rebranding efforts were implemented to make the event more amenable to younger audiences by enticing them with wine, beer, and other goodies.
Garden & Gun Magazine profiled the yearly event in their recent April/May 2016 edition describing it as the following:
The Wakefield Shad Planking’s roots reach back to the early 1930s, when a group of men gathered to cook shad on wooden planks along the James River in Isle of Wight County. Even then, the informal event was an amalgam of cultural preservation and politics: Virginia Indians had planked shad for hundreds of years, and Virginians were known for their affinity for political sparring. The Ruritan Club took over the event in 1949 and moved it to Wakefield, where it has remained ever since, although it has changed dramatically in size and character. During presidential and senatorial election years, the crowd can swell to better than two thousand. Harry Byrd, Sr., Harry Byrd, Jr., John Warner, and George Allen have stumped at the event. Whereas once it was a whites-only, male-only, heavy-drinking gathering, it now draws a cross section of the Southside Virginia community. Women and African Americans first forayed to the planking in the 1970s. Public drunkenness is frowned upon. And while it was once a largely Democratic affair, the Shad Planking these days reflects the Republican tenor of southeastern Virginia.
The festival had roughly 1,500-2,000 attendees, which is slightly smaller than previous years. (It rained most of Friday.) Despite the rain and torrential downpour, Virginians from all across the Commonwealth came to soak in the yearly tradition of eating shad and meeting other like-minded individuals.
Trying shad, which is the fish for which this festival is named, is one of the highlights of the event. (Event organizers call it a rite of passage for every Virginian, native and non-native.) I sampled some butterfly shad and some shad roe (fish eggs). The former is very boney, but delicious–especially with the sauce the shad plankers topped it with. The latter, which is more popular with event goers, is delicious but not as much of a hassle to eat.
Not only did the event feature fish, it featured its share of Virginia politics, as expected.
Local Republican campaigns for statewide offices–U.S. Congress, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Governor, and General Assembly–made their pitches to event goers. Few local Democrats seeking office were in attendance too. One of two declared GOP candidates for governor, sitting U.S. Congressman Robert Wittman of Virginia’s 1st District, showed up while former 2013 U.S. Senate nominee and former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie was a no-show. Three candidates for lieutenant governor also spoke. Moreover, three Republican candidates for the 2017 attorney general’s race–delegate and conservative attorney Rob Bell (Virginia’s 58th District-Albemarle), as well as lawyers John Adams of Virginia Beach (whom Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) endorsed) and Chuck Smith of Richmond–gave their stump speeches, as well. The event was MC’d by Virginia farmer Martha Boneta, one of the state’s most outspoken private property rights advocates.
Martha told me why she was thrilled to MC the event this year.
“I love Virginia with all my heart. It’s my home–it’s where I was raised,” she said. “This is a political rite of passage…It’s such an honor and a privilege to be here.”
She also lauded the Ruritan Club for doing “an amazing service to the Commonwealth of Virginia” with Shad Planking.
The event also featured presidential straw poll, to which Donald Trump won 82 votes, follow by Ted Cruz with 40 votes, and John Kasich with 27 votes. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders received nine votes each. Straw polls, as we know, carry little weight–but give some perspective into voter attitudes.
Dozens of sponsors were also to be found– including the NRA-ILA, Virginia Citizens Defense League, local wineries, and numerous food vendors.
As a transplant to Virginia, I recognize Shad Planking’s importance – however small or large – to the Commonwealth’s politics. Locally, this event is ground zero for candidates and sitting incumbents to interact with festival attendees to make their pitches. Nationally, it is harder to read how people felt. A small portion of event goers voted in the straw poll, so it’s not statistically accurate or reflective of Virginia voter attitudes on our side. Yes, Tidewater (southern Virginia) somewhat likes Trump but our state held its primary back on Super Tuesday–where Trump won 37% of the vote. (Over 60,000 Democrats voted for Trump in our primary since it’s an open contest, and attitudes on Trump have perhaps changed to his detriment.) Nonetheless, Shad Planking denotes how important Virginia will be as a swing-state this fall if the race provides a contrast. (I don’t see Virginia tilting to us if it’s a Trump v. Clinton matchup, especially since our crooked governor Terry McAuliffe is a close associate of the Clinton’s.) Virginia voter attitudes are important, and our state shouldn’t be discounted especially if the contest comes down to a real conservative (not Trump) versus Hillary Clinton.
I’m grateful to the Shad Planking organizers for inviting me and allowing me to finally earn my Virginia stripes. Non-Virginians are also welcome to attend, so come on down (or up) here to experience Shad Planking!