In all his years as a legislator from urbane Alexandria, Brian J. Moran never made the 160-mile pilgrimage to the rustic Shad Planking until today, joining other potential 2005 candidates and more than 1,000 activists for the annual rite of spring in Virginia politics.
"This is my first but not my last," said Moran, a Democrat in the House of Delegates who plans to run for state attorney general two years from now. "This was well worth it."
Even in off years like this election cycle, with no statewide race on the Nov. 4 ballot, there's nothing like the Shad Planking as the best venue for swapping political war stories and showcasing new talent.
After 55 years, the event is a period piece of Virginia, but throngs still descend on this Southside hamlet to pay homage to the tradition of picking through spiced filets of shad, an oily, bony fish that's smoked overnight on wooden boards beside hot coals.
"It's the place to be for people who are interested in running statewide," said Sen. Bill Bolling (Hanover), who is crisscrossing the state for the GOP's lieutenant governor nomination. "It's important to know the people who are here and for them to get to know you. Plus, this is just fun."
Bolling was drinking bottled water, but beer was the beverage of choice as political old-timers rubbed elbows with novices in the grove of pines and hardwood trees where the event has been staged for decades.
Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), the featured speaker, kept things light for a crowd that, despite sparkling blue skies, was smaller than the 3,000 that planking organizers had expected. Industry lobbyists and consultants arrived by the vanload.
Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) was mobbed by fans, and nervous-looking freshmen lawmakers worked the crowd. The two major parties are focusing this fall on races for all 140 General Assembly seats.
Warner teased Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) about their gubernatorial ambitions in 2005, saying, "Tim and Jerry want to be governor so bad that the next time I have to announce major budget cuts, I may let them make that speech instead of me!"
The planking goes back to the 1930s, when a small group of friends gathered to celebrate the migratory running of the shad in the James River.
As the event grew ever popular, the Wakefield Ruritan Club took it over in 1949 and moved it to a woodsy sportsmen's club off U.S. Route 460 in Sussex County, 60 miles southeast of Richmond.
Over time, the gathering became the premier event on Virginia's political calendar, an opportunity for the rural, white elite who ran state government from county courthouses to evaluate the rising crop of statewide candidates.
African Americans and women were excluded, and their presence was never really felt until the late 1970s, about the time a female Washington Post reporter acquired a ticket that admitted her to the males-only bastion.
"We've come a long way, baby!" exclaimed Sen. L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), an African American, as she introduced Warner.
The Ruritans initially would not grant politicians a platform to speak in the year they were seeking office, but they broke tradition in 2001 and allowed Warner and two Republican gubernatorial hopefuls a few minutes each to address the crowd.
"With today's media availability, it's not as important, but folks here still like to meet the person and shake their hand," said William B. "Buddy" Savedge, a local insurance agent who has co-chaired the planking since 1983.
Savedge, 54, has helped out at the planking since his high school days in the 1960s and can remember his father lining up speakers, including Harry Flood Byrd, the former governor and U.S. senator whose conservative Democratic dynasty ruled state politics in postwar Virginia.
"It was just special to have those guys -- they were the highlight and delight," Savedge said, ticking off the parade of personalities who paid their respects in Wakefield. Chief among them was two-term governor Mills E. Godwin Jr., a Democrat-turned-Republican and planking fixture who made his home in this corner of the state.
And then there's the fish, more than a ton of it today: 1,600 pounds of shad imported from North Carolina because of Virginia's depleted stocks; 1,200 pounds of whiting for frying and 300 pounds of farm-raised Virginia trout, most of that set aside for the helpers and cooks, Savedge said.
Former legislator E. Floyd Yates of suburban Richmond, who turned 100 last month, has attended all 55 official shad plankings. He surveyed the 21st century scene from a shaded van, savoring his first taste of shad roe, the fish eggs that, when fresh, have a delicate, eggy flavor.
"Much better than that stuff you get at the store," declared Yates, who sported a cap autographed by Allen that proclaimed Yates "a Virginia treasure."
Gov. Mark R. Warner enjoys a light moment at the Shad Planking in Wakefield, Va., a tradition in Virginia politics.The annual Shad Planking features spiced filets of shad, an oily, bony fish that's smoked overnight on wooden boards beside hot coals