Fishing For Shad

by Fly Fisherman

Many waters that are good for stripers are also good for shad.  Shad run into East Coast fresh water rivers from Florida to Nova Scotia, the most famous shad rivers of the East being the St. John’s in Florida, the Susquehanna in Maryland, the Potomac in the same state, and the Connecticut River in Connecticut. They are also found on the West Coast, in some of the Oregon rivers, having been transplanted from the East and planted in Pacific waters in 1870s.
The shad, sometimes called white shad, bears the Latin tag Alosa sapidissima, while the hickory shad, a close relative (also called Taylor herring) is Alosa mediocris, not nearly as good a fish from the sportsman’s point of view. Both are anadromous, being salt water fish that ascend fresh water rivers to spawn. They usually enter the rivers in March or April and stay until May or June before once again heading back to the salt. Once there they go straight on out and disappear in the depths beyond the continental shelf.
But while in the rivers they hit a fly hard and if they miss it, as they often do, they keep going for it, giving it thumping strikes all the way in to the boat. Or once hooked, they dart off downstream in a wild dash, then cut across current, and they usually come up with some good jumps during the fight, It may take as long as 20 minutes to land a 6-pound shad, and that while using a 9g-foot fly rod and a leader tapered to a 6-pound test tippet. The biggest fish are the roe shad, running as high as 8 pounds, while the males are smaller, usually reaching a top of 3 to 3 1/2 pounds.

Shad have been called the poor man’s salmon and with some justification. They come up the river like salmon, in runs. They spread out in the pools like salmon. And they take a small fly like salmon. Their light is not as swift, their jumps not as violent or as high, but they are more dogged and will sometimes take longer to land.
A lot of shad are taken trolling with a fly rod and fly, but the fun of shad fishing is in casting for them. Usually it takes moving current to put them in the mood to hit, but when you catch a run heading upstream, you are in for some great fishing. The best pitch for shad is to cast across current, allow the fly to sink about a foot, and then bring it back in even, 2-foot-long jerks, slowly, but steadily. The shad will come to the top as they roll at the fly and will often miss, but back they will come, keeping on striking and each time they hit, it will numb your fingers.

Once while on the Susquehanna River below the Conowingo Damm we were anchored, and casting in to the shore where shad often travel as they move upstream. We had caught three or lour fish, using small white bucktails, but things had quieted down and we were just about to move. Then both Fred and I had hits at once. These were bigger fish, too, and we were hard at it for the next ten minutes before bringing them in to net. ‘They were each about 5 pounds. And no sooner had we got our flies back in the water than we both had hits again. This kept up until we thought it was never going to stop, and when finally those fish went on and left us, they left us with our tongues hanging out. That is the only time I ever caught two fish with a single hook. As I put the net down to bring in one of my fish and pulled upwards, I discovered two fish in the net. A small buck had been travelling with the hooked roe shad and had even followed it into the net. We had often seen a couple of bucks on either side of a roe fish, pressing against it, so we knew what had happened. Those fish were ready to spawn and those eager bucks were trying to hurry nature’s process along.
We had it that day, such fishing as you dream about.

Shad have a strange way of working their jaws when hooked. They keep opening and closing their mouths as if trying to
work the hook loose, and that is what they eventually do. Their cheek covers are paper thin, and if hooked there it is only a short time before they have made a big hole there, and have worked the hook through their cheeks.
Shad will hit many flies, small bucktails, wet flies, even Atlantic salmon flies, and especially the shad flies such as the Connecticut River shad fly, described earlier, and those tied for other well known rivers.
The hickory shad has habits much like those of his big brother. He comes into the same rivers, but in greater numbers, and more often. And when a run of hickory shad hits a river there is plenty of action because these fish really go for flies. They reach a top weight of 3 pounds, they jump often when hooked, and they put up a good fight, but nothing- like that of the true shad. They have one habit that detracts from their fight and that keeps them from being truly great fighters—they will run straight upstream to the boat, making it easy to pull them in and net them. But a hickory will jump as many as six or seven times, and their hard strike alone is worth going for. They sock a fly so hard they almost knock the rod from your h ands.
Hickory shad are not good to eat and their bodies are laced and interlaced with bones, but their roe is very good, finer and tastier, many people consider, than that of the shad.

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