"I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio." Poor Rodney Dangerfield never got any respect, and sometimes I wonder if the Hickory Shad feel the same way. Only weighing in at a couple pounds and too bony for most folks to consider worthy of eating, they don't get the love and respect they deserve. Most conventional anglers only consider them worth chasing for their roe, or to use them as bait for larger fish. There's nothing worse than telling someone that you are "really into shad fishing", and then they reply that "they sure do make fantastic catfish bait". If they only knew... If they only knew how spunky these guys are, especially on a light weight fly rod. For their size they put forth a really good show, usually ending their battle with a few aerial stunts, earning the name "The Poor Man's Tarpon".
Even though they look like they should be cousins, Hickory Shad aren't related to Tarpon or Ladyfish. They are actually in the Herring family, and like Herring, they are anadromous meaning that they spend most of their life in saltwater, but return to their birthplace up freshwater rivers to spawn. Some of these fish travel hundreds of miles upstream to spawn, so that their eggs are laid in just the right location to tumble down stream as they develop. Each female can carry up to half a million eggs on her journey upstream. See...there's the marine biologist in me coming out again. Moving on...
Hickory Shad are found during the spring runs as far north as the Patuxent River in Maryland and as far south as the St. John's River in Florida. The largest concentrations are found in the coastal rivers of Virginia and North Carolina. I have several friends who target them on the Rappahannock and James Rivers in Virginia. Here in North Carolina, we focus our attention on the Cape Fear, Neuse, Roanoke and Tar Rivers, along with a few lesser known spots like the Cashie River. Depending on the late winter and spring water temps, the shad arrive in their spawning locations anywhere from early February to mid March and most of the action is ending around the second half of April. If you follow the local fishing reports you can usually track the movement of the fish as they are caught farther and farther up river each week.
As these fish move upriver against the flow, they look for breaks and seams in the current where they can take a break. These fish can end up in some huge schools in those resting spots, and the fly angler can quickly go from fishing to catching, and catching, and catching.
Hickory Shad are a blast and a half to fight on a light fly rod similar to what you would use on a bream pond or a trout stream. Other than the fly rod, pretty much everything else about fishing for shad is different...the lines, leaders, flies, and techniques are all different.
Equipment: Hickory Shad are usually around 1-3 lbs, so most are targeted on 3-5wt fly rods. I can remember them being strictly targeted on 6wts about 10 years ago due to the weight of the fly lines. Over the last 10 years, anglers have lightened up their gear to the point where most are throwing a 3 or 4wt, but a 5wt is still plenty of fun.
A lot of the Coastal Rivers that shad spawn in are deeper than your average trout stream or bass pond. Lots of fish are caught in 5-15ft of water, and the fish are more often found deeper than shallow. If you are shad fishing in deeper stretches of water, or in current, consider using a sinking line. There's always the one fisherman who's trying to make a floating line work when the fish are 12ft down by adding a longer and longer leader or split shots to his line....don't be that guy.
In the Carolinas, a 150, 200, or 250 grain sinking line is standard. RIO and Scientific Anglers both make some really nice integrated shooting head sinking lines. These lines are usually composed of a black or charcoal colored weighted head with a bright colored running line. Some companies use a different color running line for each grain designation within a series of lines, so that they are easy to identify at a glance. Sinking lines have a specified sink rate which makes it easy to know what depth you are fishing in. For example, if your line sinks at a rate of 6"/second, and the fish are 10ft deep, then you would count to 20 seconds to get the correct depth before retrieving your line.
If you are used to throwing a floating line on a 3, 4, or 5wt rod, a sinking line might be a chore to cast at first. Once you learn the nuances of casting an over weighted line, it's quite fun and is a very effective tool for getting your fly to your target quickly. Compared to a floating line, your rod will feel like a limp noodle when casting, but opening up your cast will help keep the line's momentum going and quickly shoot it with one or two false casts.
If you fish a sinking line for shad, a very short leader is all you need. 2-3 feet of 10-15lb mono is perfect. The shad are not picky and having a short leader keeps the fly close to the fly line and allows it to be fished at the deeper depth.
There's been some controversy over whether or not pre-spawn and spawning shad are actually in a serious feed mode or if they are just hitting our flies as reactionary strikes. Either way, the general rule of thumb with shad flies is "the brighter the better". Combinations of red, yellow, white, pink, chartreuse, and orange work well. Some flies are as simple as two small plumes of marabou on a hook, or wooly bugger style patterns using palmered estaz for the bodies. I keep flies with lead eyes, bead chain eyes and some with no weight in my box. Most shad flies are tied on size 6, 4, or 2 hooks and are 1-2" in length. Too long of a tail on a shad fly will result in short strikes and missed opportunities. Check the regulations in your local waters, as some require barbless hooks, which are a good idea even if not required.
Technique: There are two ways to fish shad, drifting and anchoring, with the latter being the more popular.
Drifting is a great way to locate shad if you have a good amount of current pushing down the river from rain fall or dam releases. A pair of fisherman can get a cast length away from the shoreline and drift with their motor running. The angler at the front of the boat can make casts towards the shoreline as the boat drifts. The idea here is to cover some ground in an attempt to locate a school of fish. Since the boat and the line are usually drifting down the river at the same rate, the line will stay perpendicular to the shoreline. After a cast is made the angler can count down to the correct depth, and start retrieving the fly back to the boat. When a shad is hooked, you can look across the shoreline and pick a unique object such as a downed tree, to know where the fish was hooked. After you land the fish, you can motor back to the same spot and anchor to fish the school.
If you have located a school of fish, or know where they hang out, anchoring is a great way to catch a bunch of shad. Since the boat will be anchored in current, your line will sweep downstream of your cast as you count down and retrieve. You can make casts perpendicular to the shoreline, or a little up current of the boat and let it swing back alongside or behind the boat as you count down to your desired depth. Once your fly is down, point your rod tip in the fly's direction and start stripping back. If you miss a strike, let a few feet of line back out and strip right back through the school, a lot of times this will result in a hookup.