Updated for 2015! American Shad ascend rivers on both the West and East Coasts in the spring months and are an absolute blast to catch on light tackle! While not a super sophisticated fish, there are a few things you need to know to consistently score. Here are some tips and tricks to help you catch a bunch of shad this season:
Getting to Know the American Shad
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. Back East, shad roam the Atlantic from Florida to Nova Scotia and spawn in many drainages in-between, including the Delaware, Susquehanna, Juniata, Delaware, Schuylkill and Lehigh rivers.
Depending on the location and temperature, the first waves of American Shad arrive sometime April and fishing can last through June and into July in some streams.
Herring on Steroids
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 excellent sport! Males average 2-3 pounds, while the females run 4-6 pounds and slightly larger on occasion.
Since American shad typically don’t feed when they’re in freshwater (they are plankton eaters in the ocean), why they’ll bite a fly or lure is not completely understood. As with river salmon, the general consensus is shad strike out of aggression, but I think they are actually quite inquisitive by nature. Many times I’ve watched shad pick up objects that drifted by their noses – stuff like tiny bits of moss, woody debris and even aquatic insects. I don’t think they’re actually eating these items, but rather grabbing them out of curiosity.
Along the East Coast, shad darts and small flutter spoons like Dick Nites are the top weapons for anglers fishing famed waters like the Delaware, Pamunkey and Connecticut rivers. Washington and Oregon shad anglers working big rivers like the Columbia and Willamette fish similar stuff.
Down south in the Sacramento Valley, the 1/32-ounce Strike King Mr Crappie jig head (in white, chartreuse and pink) with a 1.5- to 2-inch curly tailed grub is king, followed by shad darts up to a half ounce. While red/white and solid yellow were the staple color schemes back in the 1970’s and early 80’s, chartreuse and hot pink seem to be the two favorites now. Of course, it’s a good idea to keep a variety of colors and sizes on hand in case the shad are in a “retro” mood.
Shad are notoriously fickle and will sometimes bite the heck out of a one particular color, and then, without warning, they’ll be onto a new one. Experimentation is the key. If you can see fish but aren’t getting bit, change jig colors frequently until you find the one the fish want at that particular moment. And, just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, be ready to switch again…
Most shad fishing is done with light spinning gear. A 6- to 7 ½-foot stick with a soft tip and plenty of backbone in the lower two-thirds of its length is perfect. A forgiving tip will help protect light leaders and also aid in the detection of subtle strikes. Having a stout lower end will enable you to turn fish without wearing them out to the point of exhaustion. Check out the Temple Fork Outfitters’ TFG SSS 602-1 spinning rod. Spinning reels should be loaded with 4- to 8-pound test and need to have smooth and durable drags – shad put up a good scrap! Abu Garcia’s Orra SX is a nice little reel with a reasonable price tag.
Shad: The Big Secret
Shad are a schooling fish and usually where you find one, you find a whole bunch. The really important thing to understand about these jumbo herring is they school up in long, almost single file lines rather than tightly-bunched packs like other fish.
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, strung-out band of shad. File this little nugget into the back of your brain…the reasons will become obvious when we get to the how to catch them part.
One of the beauties of shad fishing is its inherent simplicity. You don’t need a fancy boat and $7,000 worth of gear to be successful. You can catch plenty of fish from shore and all you really need is a light rod, a handful of jigs and/or darts and some desire. The key is to be able to locate shad holding water.
Deep, slow pools are good places to begin your quest. Shad tend to hold throughout the heat of the day in such spots, where they’ll often wait for evening to fall before they continue upstream. Long, uniform flats with slow to moderate current will also attract shad, as will the mouths of tributary streams, current seams and soft current edges. Shad aren’t big fans of ascending falls, heavy rapids, fish ladders and the like, so the areas just downstream of such obstructions are also worthy of investigation.
Once you’ve found a good-looking spot, start by tying on a jig or dart that’s just heavy enough to get to the bottom but light enough to drift with the current. If you need extra weight to get down, add some splitshot or a slip sinker 18 to 24 inches above the lure. Position yourself upstream of the water you want to fish and cast slightly down and across the current. Allow your offering to sink near the bottom and swing in a downstream arc. As it drifts, give the jig some action by raising the rod tip 12 inches or so every 3 to 5 seconds. This jigging motion seems to really appeal to the curious nature of the fish and will draw strikes when a simple “dead drift” approach doesn’t work.
Let the rig drift through the entire run and when it ends up in a position directly downstream of you, jig it a few times in place and then reel up and cast again. Be sure to cover every inch of the area you’re fishing because shad can be very easy to miss (remember the long, skinny schools we just talked about?). A jig cast a couple feet on either side of the fish can go unnoticed.
You can also fish jigs and darts under a bobber. Slip floats are the best type of bobber to use for this style of fishing because you can easily adjust the depth at which you are fishing. Set your lure to run a foot or two off the bottom and let it drift through the run with a drag-free presentation. In other words, make sure there is as little line sitting on the water as possible between your float and your rod tip. If any downstream bows for in your line, lift the line off the water (called mending) by raising the rod tip high and to the upstream side of the bobber. Braided line works really well for bobber fishing because it floats. Just be sure to run about 10 feet of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon for a leader.
Catching shad from a boat
Generally speaking, the best way to catch shad from a boat is to anchor up to the side or just above a holding area. Just like bank fishing, you’ll want to cast slightly down and across and let your offering drift close to the bottom. As it swings, be sure to impart the same jigging motion as you would if you were fishing from shore. Once the drift is complete and your rig is downstream of your position, however, you don’t necessarily have to reel in. You’ll catch a lot of fish with your line straight downriver — “on the dangle.”
In fact, many boaters prefer the dangle method. They’ll simply toss their lures straight downstream and then will put their rods into holders and wait for the fish to come to them. This technique certainly has its moments, but again, I reference the part about the fact that shad swim in long, skinny schools. If you are anchored up and have your offering to the inside or outside of a travel lane, you may not get bit…while the boat next to you catches fish after fish.
On big waters like the Columbia, boaters will often anchor up with flutter spoons on a dropper. They’ll run their mainline to a three-way swivel and then run a 3- to 5-foot leader back to the spoon and a 1- to 2-foot dropper to the sinker. The rig is lowered to the bottom and then the rod is put into the holder until a fish comes along.
When you get bit, you will generally feel what amounts to a solid “thump” on your rod tip, though light biters will sometimes give you a “tap-tap” sensation. Either way, set the hook immediately as shad will dump your jig as quickly as they pick it up. Hopefully, your hook will find the roof of the fish’s mouth, where it’s most likely to stay put. The sides of a shad’s mouth are paper thin and extremely delicate – and when a fish is hooked in that area, you can almost guarantee that your jig will pull out sometime during the fight.
When the water is cold or the fish are feeling pressured, the bite can be so light that it’s almost imperceptible. One tiny tick on the line is all you get and it is so soft and so slow that it’s hard to react in time.
While shad can be taken throughout the day, the final 60 minutes of daylight is the “magic hour.” That’s when they normally shake off the midday blues and go on an all-out blitzkrieg assault and anything you put in the water will get eaten. As the sun continues to slip behind the horizon, the action gets even more frantic and it’s common to for everybody in sight to have a doubled-over rod. And just as the fishing reaches its climax, it suddenly goes dead with the onset of night. Shad get into spawning mode after the sun goes down, and while you’ll see them darting around just under the surface after dark, they won’t bite.
Early morning is also a great time to fish…provided the water isn’t too cold. If temps are low, stick to the afternoons so the water has a chance to bump up a few degrees.
American shad spawn in water that ranges from 55 to 68 degrees and seem to bite best when temperatures are 60 degrees or above. Any colder than that and they’ll still take a hook but with less enthusiasm.
I will sometimes dab a little Atlas Mike’s Shrimp Lunker Lotion on my jigs and darts when the fishing is tough but most of the time I go scent-free. I do know some guys, however, who swear that rubbing your jig on the side of a fish you just caught is the best way to “scent up” a lure. The jury’s still out on that one for me, but give ‘er a go if you like. Can’t hurt, right?
Proper Shad Nets
One thing that will make your shad fishing experience a much better one is to use a catch and release net that has rubber coated mesh. Shad have paper thin sides of their mouths so you’ll usually lose them when you hook a fish there. The ones they stay on are the shad that are hooked through the top of the jaw. A lot of times, the hook point will go through the top of the fish’s nose and poke out. When you scoop up a shad hooked this way in a regular net, the hook point almost always gets tangled up in the mesh. In that case, you have to dig the hook out of the net before you can even unhook the fish.
That’s where the tangle-free C&R nets come in handy. Trust me…these are essential if you are going to do a lot of shad fishing. I have been using a Pro Mar net for the past few seasons and it has been great.
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!
The scientific name for American Shad is alosa sapidissima, which translated means “most savory.” They are an important food fish in their native range (the East Coast), but West Coasters have not yet taken too whole-heartedly to the concept of “shad is food.”
The biggest issue with shad is the crazy amount of ridiculously thin, almost hair-like bones they have. An old legend says that a shad swam out of the water, climbed on land, turned himself inside out and became a porcupine. And I almost believe it!
You can get online and Google all sorts of ways to prepare shad. My favorite is to lightly smoke them and then can them. The smoking gives them a really nice flavor and the pressure cooking dissolves all the bones.