Spring’s here and that means it’s time for American Shad! Here’s a quick crash course on just exactly what these things are… and how to catch ‘em:
For the uninitiated, shad are over-grown members of the herring family that spend most of their life in the ocean and then return to freshwater rivers to spawn (like salmon, only most shad don’t die after spawning).
Native to the East Coast, shad were transplanted to the West in the 1800’s and have flourished since. Out West, the Columbia River plays host to the largest runs followed by the Sacramento River and her main tributaries, the American, Feather and Yuba rivers.
The first waves of these jumbo herring arrive sometime April and fishing can last through June and into July in some streams.
Herring on Drugs
Don’t write off shad just because they’re related to herring. They’re great fighters when hooked and often make long runs highlighted by some impressive aerial work. Shad are such highly-regarded opponents that anglers have dubbed them “poor man’s tarpon” – a cliché I’ve heard far too many times, but an apt description none-the-less. I prefer to call them “herring on steroids.” Whatever name they go by, shad are a blast to catch – males average 2-3 pounds, while the females run 4-6 pounds and slightly larger on occasion.
Single File, Please
Shad are a schooling fish and usually where you find one, you find a whole bunch. The interesting thing about these jumbo herring is they school up in long, almost single file lines rather than tightly-bunched packs like other fish. That means you need to really cover a piece of holding water thoroughly before moving on.
There could be a school of 500 fish in front of you but you’d swear that the pool’s devoid of fish because you’ve been making casts a foot or two on either side of the narrow band of shad. I rarely catch shad in water that’s deeper than about 12 feet, and they usually sit in water with a moderate flow to it. Shad aren’t big fans of running up rapids and other obstructions, so they often get concentrated below such areas.
Other places to fish include current seams below rocks and islands, current edges where fast water meets slow, tail-outs and, especially… flats.
Match the Hatch?
When they run upstream to spawn, shad aren’t programmed to feed, so there’s no natural food source to match when fishing for them. Spin anglers do very well with 1/2-inch chartreuse, pink, yellow and red/white mini grubs fished on 1/32- to 1/16-ounce lead head jigs. To get the jig down, splitshot is often needed about 20 inches above the lure. You can also run the same rig with small Dick Nite Spoons in the same color schemes.
Cast slightly upstream and let the jig sink down to the bottom. You’ll know you have the right amount of lead when the lure lightly “ticks” the bottom. Too much lead and you’ll hand up; too little and you won’t get down where the fish are. A good outfit for shad fishing is a 6-foot ultralight rod rated for 4- to 6-pound test line and a spinning reel with a quality drag system.
Shad are also a great fly rod species. I like a No. 6-8 rod with a shooting head to get my offering down to the bottom. Sparsely-tied bead-chain eye patterns with silver mylar bodies and pink or chartreuse hackle work well. Use about a 4-foot leader and fish them on-the-swing.
Change is Good
One little annoying trait that shad have is they can shut off without warning. You can be happily plucking a fish per cast out of a spot for two hours and then, suddenly, nothing. Change lure or fly color and – PRESTO! – they’re back on the bite. The moral of the story: feel free to switch around until you find a color that works.
When your lure or fly is drifting along, near the bottom, give your rod tip a light jerk every couple of seconds. Shad really seem to be attracted to erratic motion, so adding some “jigging” motion to your lure will help increase the amount of strikes you get. Also, pay attention when you’re reeling in a shad. If it’s a female, it will often be accompanied by 1-4 males. The males will follow a hooked female right up to the boat or your feet and are extremely aggressive. If you’re fishing with a buddy, have him/her drop their jig or fly in right next to your hooked fish, and 9 times out of 10, one of the males will slam it. Instant double-hook-up!