May 30, 2019
By David Paul Williams
So many good things start in California. So it is with the “poor man’s tarpon” — the American shad.
An east coast transplant, American shad came to California by train in 1871 in milk buckets. Seth Green, the “father of United States fish culture” emptied the fish in the Sacramento River where they, being anadromous, immediately went to the sea.
Shad are notoriously migratory, looking for new rivers to call home, and they answered the call, swimming into new haunts along the West Coast. Before the decade expired, shad were swimming in several California rivers, made their way north into the Columbia River, and swam their way onto menus of tony San Francisco restaurants. The only known shad stocking, other than the Seth Green plant, was one in 1885 on the Columbia River. Their range has continued to expand, with fish found as far south as Todos Santos in Baja California and north to the Bering Sea.
For your inner biologist, their scientific name, Alosa sapidissima, comes from “allis” — the Saxon word for European shad — and the Latin word “sapidissima” — meaning “most delicious.” Shad played a role in at least two wars fought on American soil. Historians note, the Continental Army camped at Valley Forge during the American Revolution made it through that bitter winter nourished in no small part by smoked shad. Eighty years later, shad played a part in the Civil War’s last battle. Confederate General George Pickett and his staff missed the fracas — instead they attended a shad bake.
The American shad is the only anadromous shad on the West Coast. The “silver bullet” and “tarpon” nicknames stem from its flashy, bright silver sides and belly, as well as their fighting characteristics.
A metallic-blue-to-greenish back, paper-thin mouth membrane, a dark spot behind the gill plate, deeply forked tail, saw-like serrated edge along the belly midline, and large scales complete the picture. Imagine a mini-tarpon that loves to run, pull hard and once airborne, its entire body shimmying and shaking!
Male shad reach sexual maturity at 3 years old, average a couple of pounds heavy and usually make up the early part of the run. The females spend another year or, sometimes, two at sea, adding weight before they return. They’ll average 4 pounds, with “Big Berthas” getting close to 8 pounds.
Shad are low-light or night-time broadcast spawners. Egg blobs freely float in the current until the fertilized eggs drift to the bottom where they attach to structure. Depending on water temperature, it may take up to three weeks for fry to emerge. The newly hatched fry make their way downstream, generally spending their first summer in the river where they provide great fodder for every predator fish. Unlike Pacific salmon that spawn and die, shad can return to the ocean to spawn again the following year. Once the shad hit the ocean, they fly under the radar — very little is known about their ocean years. There is no known shad saltwater fishery.
SHAD RIVERS, SOUTH TO NORTH
Shad come through the Sacramento Delta, some heading up the Sacramento River, while others split off to swim up the San Joaquin River, where the Mokelumne River stands as the best San Joaquin tributary.
The American, Feather and Yuba rivers — all Sacramento River tributaries — provide great shad fishing from May through the first week of July. The timing of the run coincides with the cotton blizzard from the cottonwood trees lining the river banks. The Sacramento system is striped bass country. Stripers eat shad. Many a shad fisherman has been shocked by a big striper rocketing up from the depths to snatch a struggling shad.
Across the border into Oregon, shad anglers head for the Umpqua River, where 750,000 shad return to the river. Drive the river. Watch for cars. There will be no doubt where the shad runs are in place.
Farther north, shad stack up in the Willamette River at the base of Willamette Falls. With the exception of some good bank-fishing around the mouth of Clackamas River, the Willamette is a boat show.
In Washington, there’s no doubt where the shad run, as do all anadromous fish reaching the interior of the Evergreen State — the Columbia River. The migration starts to arrive in mid-May in the lower river, around Camas and Washougal. They push upriver toward Bonneville Dam during the first few weeks of June and continue upriver toward the John Day Pool. The bulk of the run is akin to a pig passing through a boa constrictor. At the run’s peak, 100,000 fish may crowd their way past Bonneville Dam in a single day. Go fishing when the numbers exceed 20,000 fish per day.
Without doubt, Bonneville Dam attracts the most anglers. At the peak of the run, gear-anglers stand shoulder to shoulder on both sides of the river, taking fish after fish, filling 5-gallon buckets. Fly anglers don’t do well here, simply because of the crowds and the limited casting room. Explore upstream and downstream to find solitude and willing shad.
The Columbia offers the possibility of a rare, though short-lived exciting conflict when a sturgeon grabs a hooked shad. In a big-fish-eats-little-fish scenario, the 300-pound fish wins the prize, either snapping the line, the rod or both.
FIND THE FISH
Understanding shad is key to finding them, no matter which river you fish.
Shad like company. They congregate in tightly-packed pods. Individual fish are commonly caught on a shad dart — a slant-faced, tapered jig, sized 1/32-ounce up to 1/4-ounce or more (1/16-ounce being the most popular) that may have a bare lead finish, be painted or feature a plated finish. Cast 1 yard either side of the pod, and the river will appear completely void of fish. Locate the pod, and fish after fish can be hooked until the shad exhibit one of their well-known, but frustrating, behaviors: The pod moves, or they turn off the color of that dart.
Experienced shad anglers tell of catching fish on every cast until the catching abruptly stops as if all the fish have packed up and gone home. A color change often flips the switch, and the catching resumes until something hits the “off” button again.
The tendency for shad to “cycle” — that is, swim upstream to the head of the run/pool, then drift back together — adds a dimension to the task of finding, then hitting, a moving target. The pool may be 3 to 15 feet deep, but most of the fish will usually be within 2 feet of the bottom and not more than 30 feet from shore.
They also like fairly strong current moving through the pool and will usually be found in the seam, where the fast water mixes with the slower water. Water temperature is important. Research shows that shad rarely feed in water temperature below 54 degrees and stop eating when the water temperature exceeds 75 degrees.
River structure also plays a major role in where you’ll find fish. The most productive shad holes and runs are where something — a submerged tree, log jam or rock ledge — restricts the natural river flow and funnels the fish into a smaller area. Look for areas of abrupt depth changes or river bends. Fish the seam, where the faster current along the outside edge meets the slower current on the inside.
LESS IS MORE
In the ocean, shad feed on planktonic crustaceans such as copepods, mysid shrimp and euphasids. Darts tied with round heads and sparse tails in pink suggest the copepod shape and the reddish oil visible through their carapace. Those tied with elongated heads and bodies in green suggest krill or mysid shrimp with full bellies.
Shad darts are tied on crappie jigs or regular hooks weighted with lead wire and dumbbell or bead-chain eyes. Weight the dart enough to sink close to but not hit the bottom. Flashabou, diamond braid, running line and similar flashy-and-fast materials are wrapped into short tails and slim bodies. The most common mistake made in tying darts is making them too full. Less is more. Tails of half a body length or less combined with a thin, tapered body and no hackle makes for a successful dart.
Gear fishers impale 1 1/2-inch, curly-tail grubs in pink or chartreuse on 1/32-ounce jigs, then add enough split shot to hold the grub near, but not on, the bottom. Small, 1/16-ounce, silver-colored Mepps and Blue Fox spinners work, too. Minimalists thread a couple red, pink or chartreuse beads on the line, above the hook, with just enough weight to get down.
Fly-fishermen with shad on their radar use a 6-weight, 9-foot fly rod and a reel with 100 yards of backing … but fly-fishermen diverge into two distinct groups on fly lines and leaders. One group prefers a floating line and 10 to 15 feet of leader. The other swears by a 20-foot, Type IV, sinking head attached to a running line and a short leader. Both work when the fly gets down to the fish.
A 7-foot, light- to medium-action spinning rod, matched with 6- to 8-pound monofilament is standard gear.
THE TACTICS AND THE TAKE
Whether fly-fishing or casting with spinning tackle, make short casts sufficiently across and upstream to allow the grub/spinner to sink near the bottom before following it with the rod, using an up-and-down jigging motion as the current sweeps it downstream. At the end of the drift, let it hang in the current seam for as long as 30 seconds. Shad will often smack that flashy grub dancing in front of their faces. Make a few short strips to see if that entices a strike, then pick up and cast again.
The take is definite so a hard, reaction hookset is not necessary and may result in ripping the bait or fly from these tender-mouthed fish. Some fishermen use a strip strike on the theory that if they miss the fish, they may get another bite from a different fish. And when searching for fish, always track the line through the run, mentally marking the spot where the strike occurred so the next cast can hook another fish in that same spot.
Morning fishes better than mid-day. The bite usually picks up again as the sun leaves the water. Don’t waste time fishing at night because the shad have switched their full attention to reproduction. Cloudy days fish better than bluebird weather. Shaded runs fish better than those in full sun.
GO GET ‘EM
American Shad — a fish success story in a time of diminished salmon and steelhead runs — provide a new and different fishing experience for anglers weaned on trout and other salmonids. Give shad a chance, and these silver bullets will be on your calendar year after year thereafter.