Shad, both American and hickory, played a role as an excellent spring protein source in the early days of our country. Native Americans used to stack rocks across small streams in a v-shaped pattern and herd shad toward the point of the “v” to capture them. In today’s culture of refrigeration and ice available on every corner, other milder tasting fish have taken the commercial spotlight. Although their value as a commercial target has declined, smart anglers still seek shad for their tremendous fight on light tackle.
Growing up in the mid-Atlantic region, the spring fishing reports always contained information about where the shad were biting. I was eaten up with smallmouth bass fishing then, and never gave shad fishing a try. I did not realize what I was missing. Recently, I have really enjoyed catching the hard-pulling fish, and my taste buds look forward to a meal or two of shad each spring.
Shad are anadromous, which means that they spend their juvenile years in the ocean and migrate to freshwater (their natal river system) to spawn. In most systems, they begin spawning after a handful of years, and in rivers northward of South Carolina, they typically spawn multiple times during their life. Shad migrate in schools, and the trick to a good day of fishing is to be there when the “wave” of fish is in the area or fishing beneath some kind of obstructions, such as a dam, shoal, or narrow portion of the river. Bank anglers can be successful, but boats open up the option of moving around looking for concentrations of fish. Both American and hickory shad will take artificial lures. The American shad is the larger species, but what the hickory shad lacks in size, it makes up for with its scrappy, aerial acrobatic fight.
Good locations for catching shad on rod and reel occur from Florida to Canada. The “shad run” starts as early as January in Florida and lasts into June farther up the coast. To find a good shad river, check with your local tackle store or read Boyd Pfeiffer’s book, Shad Fishing: A Complete Guide to Species, Gear, and Tactics. It is available in tackle stores, bookstores, and on-line booksellers, or you can get a signed copy by contacting Boyd at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shad darts and spoons are two of the traditional lures used for shad. Often they are used in combination with the lead-head on the dart providing weight to keep the flashy spoon toward the bottom. While these rigs have landed literally tons of shad over the years, my favorite rig is a curly-tailed grub and spoon combination. I start with one of my hand-made jigheads in a variety of sizes ranging from 1/16-oz. to as heavy as 1/2-oz., depending upon the current. I try to use as light of a weight as possible to get the lure down near bottom. I then thread a Bass Assassin 2-inch Curly Shad onto the jighead. The best plastic shad colors have been chartreuse-silver flake, candy corn, and pink diamond. The spoon I use to trail behind the Curly Shad is a Hildebrandt Shad King spoon. Some folks call the little offering a “flicker spoons” because of the tiny willowleaf blades attached to the hook that flip in the current. The two smallest spoon sizes (1/32 and 1/16-oz.) usually draw the most shad strikes, and both the silver and gold versions are effective. Vicious 17-lb. test fluorocarbon leader is my choice to attach the jighead about 6 inches from one end of a three-way swivel and the spoon about a foot away from the other end. This rig has been effective for me whether casting or trolling.
Shad have soft mouths and are masters at pulling off the hook. Hence, a slow action rod that bends well down into the blank, but has enough backbone to fight a 5-pound fish is a good choice. The rod that I believe is ideal for shad is an 8-foot light action Pflueger Microspin rod. The action is sporting, while the length provides a wider spread if I am trolling. Some anglers in the south use much heavier rods, up to medium-heavy action Ugly Sticks. The advantage of a heavier rod is that the shorter fight gives the fish less time to pull the hooks. To me, the extra fight of a light outfit is worth a few additional lost fish. I pair the rod with a Pflueger Medalist 7030 reel spooled with Vicious 6-lb. test Ultimate monofilament for my main line. Fly fishing for shad is also popular, and Boyd’s book gives all the details to be successful.
Some people think that shad are too fishy tasting, but I have grown to like their rich taste. Some of the naysayers have joked about their favorite shad recipe, saying that the best way to prepare a shad is over an open fire. They suggest nailing several shad filets each to their own cedar plank. Prop the boards with filets toward the fire in a circle with the tops together, like a teepee. Cook the filets until the outside begins to brown. Then, remove the filets and eat the planks.
Obviously, the folks who advance this assault on the edibility of shad either do not like fish to taste like fish or they have no creativity in the kitchen. “They’re so bony” is the typical complaint about eating shad. There are several ways to prepare shad that remove or at least render the bones edible.
Southerners can find a good recipe to fry anything, and shad is no exception. “Gashed” and deep-fried, you cannot tell that a shad filet ever had bones in the first place. To do so, scale the shad and filet each side. Cut the filet into finger-sized strips. Then, cut a slit in the meat down to the skin every eighth-inch down the shad finger, ensuring that you do not cut through the skin (or else, it will fall apart). Batter and deep fry the “shad fingers”, and the heat will disintegrate the bones. Browning the fingers well will ensure that the bones are all softened.
My favorite way to prepare a shad filet is to bake it. Scale and filet the shad and place each filet on in its own piece of aluminum foil. Put a tablespoon of butter over the filet and spice to taste. Wrap each filet and seal it into its own pouch. Cook the filets for four to five hours (yes, that was not a typo) at 250 degrees. The long, slow cooking time disintegrates the bones without ruining the quality of the meat. Be forewarned that shad cooked in the oven for that long will exude a fishy aroma throughout your house, but if you get the spice combination right, it is worth raising the ire of your housemates.
Shad roe scrambled with chicken eggs is another delicacy. On the stovetop, stir the eggs in a small amount of water in a skillet, making sure to break up the eggs as much as possible. Mix in chicken eggs and scramble. Season to taste and enjoy.
Shad are typically near the bottom of the food chain. Once you have hooked and landed a few, they will work their way to the top of your fishing target species list.