By: Gary Buchannan
Posted On: 2009-01-24
In one respect the Shad is a new fish—he's new to sport-anglers who only recently learned how to catch him on rod and reel. But he's an old friend of millions of Americans who have been dining on him and Shad roe ever since the Indian days. The fact is that until 1930 the only known way of taking Shad was by netting them. Then some enterprising anglers on New England's Connecticut River discovered a type of lure this fish would strike. In so doing they also discovered a slashing, leaping, frenzied fighter that ranks with the classiest of freshwater fish.
The Shad can't accurately be termed a fresh-water species, however, because he's "anadromous," living most of his life in salt water and entering the rivers in spring to spawn. But it is only during these spawning runs into fresh water that the Shad can be caught by anglers, or netted. He's never been taken at sea; where he goes in the vast ocean is a complete mystery. Originally native to the Atlantic coast from Labrador to Florida, Shad have been transplanted to the Pacific coast and have become well established from Southern California to Southern Alaska. You won't mistake him for another species. He's a broad silver fish with a dark blue back and a half-dozen black spots on each side behind the gills. His tail is deeply forked, and the tip of his lower jaw has a slight hook which fits into a notch in his upper jaw. The males weigh from 2 to 6 pounds; the females, usually heavy with roe, average from 6 to 8 pounds. Netters have taken Shad as heavy as 13 pounds.
The difficulty in catching Shad on rod and reel has been that this fish doesn't feed during its spring spawning run into fresh water. A Shad makes the entire trip on energy he accumulated while feeding at sea. This is a precaution of Nature to prevent the Shad from eating his own spawn. And it is the problem that stumped the anglers for years—how can you get a fish to bite a hook when he isn't biting anything, even food? Anglers waded into river pools where big Shad were packed side by side like monster sardines, and offered them juicy nightcrawlers, fresh grasshoppers and minnows. For the first time these sure fish-getters failed. Artificial lures, from streamer flies to Bass plugs, were tried. All they did was send the Shad splashing in retreat. Then some angler in desperation used a red Trout fly, so old and beaten it was nothing more than a bare hook with a twist of tinsel and a wisp of feather. To add color, he threaded a red bead in front of it. A Shad rolled and snatched it—and history was made! Since then, several other small Shad lures have been developed, but their number is limited and they must be fished in certain definite ways. Why do these non-biters bite them? Experts believe the Shad strike them instinctively, a reflex action from the days when they fed on small fish at sea.
A heavy glass fly rod is recommended when the water is low enough for you to wade within casting distance of the river pools where the Shad are resting during their runs; use spin-casting tackle when the rivers are so swollen that long casts are necessary, and also when there's no room behind you for a fly rod's backcast. Your fly should be a No. 4 or 6, and nothing more than a tinsel-wrapped hook with a single strand of feather—red for sunny days, yellow for dark days. Use 6 feet of 8-pound-test leader, but before tying your line to it, thread several small red beads on it and slide them down so they rest near the eye of the hook. Then pinch one or more split-shot sinkers to the leader to sink the fly close to the bottom. With a spinning rod, use the same setup. Or instead of the fly, try a small No. 0 silver spinner with a bare No. 4 hook behind it and the same red beads and leader ahead of it. Other small spinning lures sometimes work in exceptionally rough water, but the Shad flies and the Shad spinner are the old faithfuls.
Shad fishing demands more patience than any other kind. It's not because you must wait for the fish to come. They're usually almost at your feet, flashing their bright silver sides at you every time they roll. Patience is needed because you won't get a strike a minute, or even every hour, in spite of the horde of fish. And it's difficult to keep your self-control when these monsters are so near that you can touch them. Moreover, once you've cast your lure you must leave it alone, like still-fishing. Repeated casting will only drive the Shad away. Let the current carry your fly or spinner into the nearest pool. When your line tightens, the lure should be about a foot from the bottom where the undercurrents wave it enticingly under the Shads' noses. They won't touch it —not yet! They'll sniff it, bump it, roll over it, and finally swim away from it. But if you are patient, and stifle the impulse to reel in and cast again, eventually one of them will ease over and grab it! While you're hanging on to that ball of silver fire, you'll agree he was well worth waiting for.