We are in the height shad season right now here in the northeast, particularly in the Delaware River drainage. I thought this would be a good time to talk a little about fly fishing for shad. Shad are different from most warm water fish I target since they are anadromous, meaning they spend the majority of their lives in salt water, returning to fresh water to spawn. Shad are only available to anglers for a short window of time and during this period, they are always on the move. What was a productive spot one day may be a waste of time to fish the next.
First a little about the fish themselves. When I refer to shad, I am, in fact, referring to American Shad, not to be confused with the slightly smaller Hickory Shad. Both species may be present at the same time in some watersheds. Shad are members of the herring family. These fish spend the vast majority of their lives in salt water, returning to freshwater to spawn, much like salmon. It is interesting to note that many shad survive spawning and return to the ocean in the northern part of their range. When I refer to freshwater, I mean rivers. Although the historical range of the American Shad has been reduced due to dams and pollution, shad can be found in most major river drainages along the eastern seaboard including Florida and Nova Scotia. Originally native to only the east coast, shad were transported to our western shores in the 1800's where they took to the Pacific Ocean like a fish to water. West coast runs of shad in some rivers may, in fact, be larger than runs in their native rivers back east.
A female shad is typically larger than males. Their average weight is 3-6 pounds, but they can run quite a bit larger. The current IGFA all tackle record is a hefty 11lbs 4oz. Male shad typically range in the 2-4 pound range. Shad are feed mostly on plankton like other herring, but they have been known to consume shrimp, small fish, and fish eggs. It is puzzling why shad readily take flies and other lures, being the plankton feeders that they are. It could be out of aggression or perhaps simple curiosity. Fortunately, we don’t need to worry about why they hit flies, just be confident that they do.
When shad enter freshwater, they are doing it for one reason, and that is to spawn. Depending on where you are located this can occur anytime from late winter to early summer. In my area, the major fishery is the Delaware River. In most years the fish are in the rivers in catchable numbers by late March. Once in the rivers, the fish are constantly on the move towards their spawning grounds which could be hundreds of miles upstream and into tributaries along the way.
Shad tend to orient themselves to the river bottom, sticking close to it as they move or rest in the river. They often tend to stick to river channels, but occasionally can be found in shallow water. Shad also tend to congregate behind obstructions in the river, using the break in the current to rest before pushing up the river. Shad gather in schools in the marine environment, so if you locate one fish, you are likely to connect with more. In the rivers, shad behave differently than they do in salt water in regards to forming schools. In freshwater, a school of shad is more likely to be a long narrow line of fish opposed to a dense school. They move upstream in conga line fashion instead of a large pod of fish.
If you are trying to locate shad, you need to keep these facts in mind. You are going to need to present your fly in a manner that it gets down in the water column, real low, just over the bottom. You will probably have more success if you can locate structure in the river that will provide a break in the current if you are looking for a concentration of fish. Keep in mind that these fish are on the move constantly so you may find them anywhere. Finally, you want to be able to reach the main channel with your cast as the fish tend to seek out the deeper water of the main channel more often. Find a location that gives you one or more of these features, and you're likely to catch shad if they are there.
Fly patterns for shad are very simple. The flies I tie consist of chenille bodies a chenille heads of a contrasting color. Sometimes with a tiny tail and tinsel rib, tied on heavy wire hooks, sizes 2, 4 & 6. Fluorescent and flashy colors are particularly effective. Gold or silver tinsel chenille body with fluorescent red, yellow or chartreuse head is my preferred choice in normal, clear water, especially in bright sunlight. A black chenille body with a chartreuse head or tail is the ticket for dirty water or low light conditions. A good all around combination is a black/chartreuse or black/orange combo with a tinsel rib. These sparsely tied flies sink well and are fished with a fast strip, so no action is needed from wing/tail/hackle materials to impart the illusion of life.
I prefer a 9 or 10 foot six weight rod. It has enough power to throw the shooting head systems I use and provides plenty of sport when fighting the fish without overpowering them. I also use a 10’ - 6” seven weight in high water conditions. Shad are notorious for using current to their advantage, in strong flows such a rod is not considered overkill. When the season winds down, the water gets skinny, and the fish are not in their prime I sometimes break out a five weight.
For a fly line, I use various weight shooting heads. A shooting head with a type IV sink rate would be a good all around choice if you were only going to fish one line. I keep type V, III, and intermediate heads in my kit as well but to be honest, I seldom use them. Towards the end of the season when the water gets skinny you can get away with a sink tip, intermediate or even a floating fly line.
I never add shot to my leader. If I need additional weight to reach the fish, I will change lines or add a sinking leader. I often have to cast significant distances to get to the water the shad are holding in. "Chuck and duck” casting with heavy split shot on the line is asking for trouble. As far as shooting lines go you have a lot of choices. I prefer a 20lb line, about 100 feet of it will suffice. I am looking for a line that is easy to manage, stays tangle free and does not have a memory. Backing is a necessity with these fish. A good fish in strong current will show it to you, so be sure to have your reel filled to capacity. Again 20lb backing will be sufficient.
I keep my leaders short, very short, 2-3 feet of eight or ten-pound test mono is all I use. A longer leader will have the fly traveling above your shooting head. My goal is to have the fly moving in line with the fly line at the same level with no slack. I use a loop to loop connection between all components of the system to allow for swapping out lines easily.
Another piece of crucial equipment is a stripping basket. Whether you buy one or make your own, they are essential for keeping your shooting head and running line off the water.
Fishing this set up is pretty straight forward. You begin by stripping out your shooting head and running line into the water. Strip out enough to match your casting ability and the distance you intend on throwing the fly. The line is then stripped back and deposited into the basket, with the line closest to the reel on the bottom of the basket. If you have never cast a shooting head, you will discover it is a little different from a standard fly line. You start with most of the shooting head out of the guides. The weight of the head does all the work; you do not have to increase the power of your casting stroke much to get long distance casts. When the cast is made, the running line will fly up out of the basket and follow the head to its destination. It pays to keep the area above your basket as clean a possible to avoid the line catching on anything.
I make the cast slightly downstream and begin counting down to reach the depth I intend to fish. If I need more depth, I may angle my cast slightly upstream to allow for more time for the line to sink. Experiment with different counts to find the depth the fish are holding in. However, avoid the line making contact with the bottom at all costs. If you have a tangle or some sort of malfunction during your cast, immediately retrieve your line and don't let it settle in the water. You don’t want that dense shooting head to lodge on the bottom of the stream bed. If the line ends up in rocks or debris on the stream bottom, it could be an expensive day for you!
If you a saltwater fisherman the standard retrieve will be familiar to you. The rod is tucked under an arm and using two hands the line is stripped into the basket. Strikes will be very hard; you won’t be able to miss it. Don’t raise the rod at this point, set the hook by continuing to strip the line quickly. This is called a strip-set. When you feel the fish struggling on the line, you can lift the rod and play the fish. Whether to play the fish off the reel or by hand stripping is up to you. Often the fish will make the decision for you by rapidly taking the line and putting you on to your reel within seconds. If you are getting bumps and not solid hits you are likely dragging your fly over the backs of fish. Allow you fly to sink a little deeper, and those bumps will change to solid takes.
Fly fishing for shad is a casting game and can get quite monotonous when the fish are not biting. But once they start, you will soon forget the previous boredom when that first fish takes off for parts unknown. Shad are a hard fighting fish that are a thrill to land on a fly rod. Give them a try.