George Washington’s Favorite Fish

Paul MacInnis

George Washington and I have a few things in common; we’re both American, we’re both men, and we both like shad fishing. George caught shad from the Potomac. I pursue shad in the St. Johns River. “Shad,” you’re probably thinking, “isn’t that a baitfish?” Not the shad George and I like to catch.

American shad, Alosa sapidissima, are anadromous. They spend most of their lives in the ocean but spawn in freshwater rivers from the St. Lawrence River in Canada to the St. Johns River in Florida. American shad average one to four pounds in the St. Johns with 5.19 pounds standing as the Florida record. Their spirited fight punctuated by numerous leaps makes shad a popular light tackle sport fish.

Shad migrate upstream until they find the right combination of depth, current and bottom profile to suit their spawning needs. This takes them to a portion of the St. Johns River that stretches from Lake Monroe to Highway 50. Consulting fishing reports from shad experts like Captain Tom Van Horn ( can help you narrow in on their current location. The Florida shad run starts around Christmas, peaks in January and February and tapers off by the end of March.

American shad generally don’t feed on their spawning runs so small, bright, flashy lures that elicit a reaction strike work best. Chartreuse, silver, white, hot pink and yellow are all good colors. The classic lures that have been catching shad for decades are shad darts (a small hair jig) and shad spoons. There are a handful of manufacturers of these baits but my favorites are the Min-O-Dart and Min-O-Spoon made by Johnson.

Plenty of crappie lures also catch shad. Panfish jigs tipped with plastic tails are a favorite among shad anglers because you can easily swap out tails to a different color if you are not getting bites. Tubes, grubs, curly tails and shad tails all work. It is probably best to stick with a style that you have confidence in.

Another lure that has become quite popular the last few years is the Road Runner from TTI-Blakemore which provides the appeal of a jig combined with the flash of a spoon. I mostly use 1/16th ounce Road Runners with a round Indiana blade for shallow water and a willow blade for deeper water or strong current. I am particularly looking forward to trying the recently released GO GO Road Runner on shad this year.

Shad tend to slug it out in open water so ultralight spinning tackle is ideal. Five foot rods seem to be popular, but the better shad anglers opt for longer rods for longer casts and better fish control during the fight. My personal choice is the Favorite seven foot Yampa River YMR-701M, a rod that is lightweight, sensitive and casts a mile. I match that up with a Favorite YMR1000 reel spooled with six pound test braid.

American shad are also wonderful fish to target with fly rod. Three to six weight fly rods are the standard for shad fishing. Occasionally a floating line works when the fish are shallow, but most of the time you need a sinking line to get the fly down near the bottom where shad typically hold. Some folks like a full sink line but I prefer a sink tip where most of the line floats and only the last ten feet or so sinks. Specifically I fish the Cortland 444 Type 6 Sink Tip four weight line which sinks six inches per second. Leaders don’t have to be long, four feet or so of 10 pound test works fine. Many fly fishermen like to throw Crazy Charlies or small Clousers, but just about any bright or flashy weighted fly tied on #4 to #6 hooks works well on shad.

Fishing a tandem rig with two lures or flies of different colors can help you narrow in on the hot color of the day plus gives you extra weight on spinning tackle for longer casts. Speaking of casts, you want to quarter your casts up-current and work your baits slowly along the bottom as they drift downstream. If you are occasionally snagging a clam then you know you are working your lure correctly.

American shad tend to school up in the deeper holes and bends of the river. The first order of business on a fishing trip is finding where the shad are holding that day. If you are lucky they will reveal themselves by splashing and swirling on the surface, a spawning activity that biologist call “washing”. If you happen upon a congregation of fly fishermen casting from the banks then there is a good chance they are on a hot shad bite. If you wish to join them remember to be courteous and give everyone their space.

I find most of my shad by trolling. I primarily fish from a kayak and the paddling speed of a kayak is just about perfect for shad trolling. Let out enough line that your lures are occasionally bumping the bottom, which you can tell by watching your rod tip. If you get a bite, stop and cast around the area for a while to determine if you stumbled upon an isolated fish or a whole school.

If you are going shad fishing, you might want to enter the Central Florida Shad and Crappie Derby, a free fishing tournament that runs through February 28th. It is a catch, photo and release (CPR) tournament that will award over $7,500 in prizes. For more information visit

By Paul MacInnis