By Paul Macinnis
Winter in central Florida brings one of my most anticipated seasonal fisheries of the year. American shad are an anadromous spe cies that live a bulk of their lives in the ocean but migrate into rivers like the St Johns to spawn. The migratory shad average a couple pounds. They are scrappy fighters that frequently jump, making them ideal targets for ultralight spinning tackle or four to six weight fly rods.
American shad schools in the St Johns River tend to congregate in the stretch of river between Lake Monroe and Highway 50. C.S. Lee Park off of Highway 46 is the ground zero launch point for a bulk of the shad fishing, but other popular launch sites include Lemon Bluff, Mullet Lake Park and the launch ramp on Highway 50. Shad will also migrate up the Econlockhatchee (Econ) River, and hike-in fishing on the Econ from the Brumley Road trailhead offers some of the most picturesque shad fishing you will find anywhere.
Biologist say American shad rarely feed on their spawning runs so most are caught by using bright, flashy lures to elicit a reaction strike. Although there are exceptions, most shad are caught near the bottom. Classic lures that have been catching shad for decades are hair jigs called shad darts and small shad spoons by companies like Nungesser and Johnson Fishing. Plastic tail jigs designed for panfish are effective. Road Runner lures that combine the appeal of a jig with the flash of a spoon are quite popular among shad anglers. For flies, Clouser Minnows, Crazy Charlies and other weighted patterns about an inch long get the job done. Bright colors, chartreuse, white, yellow, florescent orange and hot pink, are the rule. It’s good to bring a variety because shad can be picky about colors some days. A common question among shad anglers you meet on the river is, “What color are you catching them on today?”
The internet can help you determine where the major shad schools are holding. Captain Tom Van Horn is a local shad expert and his reports at www.irl-fishing.com can be very helpful. There are also a lot of great, current shad fishing reports on the Facebook group, Shad on the Fly.
Once on the water, shad will sometimes reveal themselves by splashing and swirling on the surface. This is called washing and is related to their spawning activity. A congregation of anglers in anchored boats and on the bank who are casting light spinning tackle and fly rods is a good indication shad are around. It’s okay to join in with the group. Just be courteous and give everyone their space. Trolling is a great way to find the shad. I mostly fish out of a kayak and the paddling speed of a kayak is perfect for shad trolling; just let out enough line so your lures are occasionally bumping bottom.
Once you find the shad, quarter your casts upstream. Let the lures sink for a few seconds and then work them back slowly along the bottom as the current drifts them downstream. When it all comes together, you will frequently feel the thump and strong pull of the scrappy American shad.