Shad, members of the herring family, are an anadromous fish; that is, they’re born in fresh water and then migrate to saltwater, where they live until they reach maturity. This maturing process can take anywhere from four to five years depending on the particular species of shad and their environment. The shad then return to fresh water to spawn, generally in the early to late spring.
The largest concentrations of shad in the U.S. inhabit waters from North Carolina to the Gulf of Maine. On the East Coast, shad show up as early as January in places like Florida. In the Mid-Atlantic region, shad tend to arrive about the last week of March and continue to migrate through the beginning of May. Shad were transplanted to the west coast in 1877, where they migrate from California to Alaska. Western shad can start as late as May and migrate well into July in rivers like the Columbia.
Shad have a long and colorful history in this country that predates the founding of the country itself. Captain John Smith, who in 1607 discovered the granddaddy of Virginia rivers, the venerable James-and shrewdly named it after his king-claimed that there were so many stripers and shad in the river that they could be scooped out of the water with a frying pan. Early Virginia colonists’ records indicate that cattle and horses had to be moved from their riverside pens in the spring because the shad migration was so large that the teeming schools of fish would actually frighten the livestock.
Thinking Like a Shad
First time shad fishing? Here are a few tips. First, shad are leaving waters that in some places are hundreds of feet deep to travel up shallow rivers. I have seen shad migrating up rivers that are so shallow their dorsal fins are actually out of the water. Herons, seagulls, and garden-variety crows are accomplished anglers, too, and they don’t miss an opportunity to snack on shad when the opportunity presents itself. To avoid these predators and to ease their travel, shad tend to stay in the deeper parts of the river.
Second, shad like current. Scout out moving water and back eddies where fish might pause to catch their breath while traveling upstream.
Finally, shad don’t really eat on their upriver trek until after they’ve spawned. At this point you’re wondering, How do you catch a fish that doesn’t eat? The shad has a one-track mind at this time of year, and you can use his preoccupation to your advantage. You see, the shad is only interested in finding Ms. Right, and he’ll strike out at anything that delays or irritates him. And that’s where your fly comes in.
Small, brightly colored flies are the ticket to successfully luring a shad to strike. Shad have small mouths, so sizes #6 through #10 are your best bet. Choose flies that are flashy and bright like copper collared wooly buggers, or chartreuse Clouser minnows. Appropriate fly lines for shad fishing depend on the size and depth of the river. If for example you’re fishing for shad in deep water-deep enough for an engine-powered boat-or in a river with heavy current, you’ll need a sinking line. I like lines in the 200-300 grain weights best because they allow you to fish most of the river’s water column. Casting expert Tim Rajeff (www.rajeffsports.com) recently designed a fly line for Airflo precisely for this type of fishing, called the Quick Max Depth Finder. The line has all the grain weight you need to get down, but a shorter head that allows anglers to roll cast easier from a boat or while wading.
If you plan on fishing a shallow river, you can probably get away with a #6 rod and a sink tip or modified sink tip line. If instead you’ll be using a boat or fishing in a river with lots of current, you may opt for a larger rod in the No. 8 or No. 9 range. Your casting ability will determine what line you’ll mostly likely use. Casting a weighted line can be a bit of a challenge for beginners, so you may need a lesson or two.
Shad are in the waters this spring all along both coasts. If you need help locating them contact your local fly shop. These fish are terrific fighters for their size and make great sport on a fly rod. If you haven’t landed one yet, you don’t know how much fun you are missing So what are you waiting for? Head out to the river this spring and give shad fishing a try.
Beau Beasley (www.beaubeasley.com) is author of Fly Fishing Virginia and his newest book Fly Fishing the Mid-Atlantic was just released. Beau is frequent contributor to multiple regional and national fly fishing publications and works as a captain for Fairfax Country Fire and Rescue where his a member of Local 2068.