by Mike Buss, Virginia Coastal Fly Anglers
This month we will begin a series of articles about the fish we commonly see and fly fish for in this area. First up will be shad, and when we talk shad around here we are talking about Hickory and American Shad.
Both are closely related and can be found in the same rivers with Hickory Shad beginning their spawning run a little earlier than American Shad.. Hickory Shad have a lower jaw that extends beyond the upper jaw and American Shad have a lower jaw that does not extend beyond the upper jaw. American Shad are typically a bit larger averaging 3 to 5 pounds, while Hickory Shad run from 1 to 3 pounds. They are both excellent fighters and readily take to the air when hooked, prompting some to nickname them the “poor man’s tarpon”.
Shad are anadromous fish, which means they live in salt water but must enter freshwater rivers and streams to spawn. Almost all the rivers and streams that run into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean experience a spawning run of shad every spring. Scientific studies have shown these runs are keyed by water temperature and the daily amount of sunshine.
The number of shad entering the rivers increases as water temperatures rise above 55 degrees F. That means shad will be entering our rivers and steams by the first of this month in the southern part of our area and will be in all of them by the end of the month. Since the slowest part of a stream is found close to the bottom and they will be going upstream to spawn, you will normally find them hugging the bottom and should target that part of the water column
Your tackle should be matched to your personal preferences. You do not need to go out and purchase a separate shad outfit. Whatever you have now should be good enough, although I like to use a 9 foot 7 weight rod balanced with an appropriate reel filled with 100 yards of backing. I have friends who drop down to a 3 weight rod, but I find they are re-rigging much more than I. The rivers I like to fish are filled with snags so I like a rod with a little more backbone to let me pull free from the snags. I like to use 10 to 12 pound test leaders for the same reason.
As for fly lines, I like to use sinking lines. If I am fishing a large fast flowing river, I will use a full sinking line like a 250 grain line. However, if I am fishing a smaller stream I usually opt for a sinking tip line to make the casting a little easier. Whatever line you choose be sure you are getting your fly close to the bottom. You should be able to feel your fly bouncing along the bottom and if you are occasionally getting snagged, you know you are in the right place.
Flies should be small and brightly colored. Shad seem to like bright colors and my experience proves this to be the case. My favorite shad fly is tied on a 1/16 ounce crappie jig with a fluorescent orange head. I tie in chartreuse krystal flash to extend about ½” beyond the bend of the hook and then wrap chartreuse estaz along the shank. The thin wire hook helps when I snag so I can pull the fly free without breaking off.
I like to fish my flies by casting across and downstream, allowing the fly to drift with the current until it reaches the end of my line before bringing the fly back in a series of strips. After bringing the fly about halfway back, I then let it drift back with the current again before retrieving it all the way back to make another cast. The take often will occur when the fly reaches the end of the drift and begins to make it’s way back upstream.
You will be wading in a river or stream and it will be early in the year with cold water, so make sure you take all the steps to stay safe. Rivers have claimed the lives of all too many anglers over the years, don’t add yours to the list.