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About Shad Baitfish: Everything You Want to Know and Then Some

Thanks to stockings outside their native range, shad are one of the most common and widely distributed baitfish in waters from California to Florida; they are a mainstay in the diet of many sportfish

About Shad Baitfish: Everything You Want to Know and Then Some
About Shad Baitfish: Everything You Want to Know and Then Some

If you could pickonly one bait to use year-round, what would you choose? Many anglers would picka favorite crankbait, jig, spinner or other artificial lure. Others mightselect live worms, crawdads or shiners. I suggest you consider shad.

The importance ofshad as food fish cannot be overstated. When proper-sized shad abound, so do gamefish.When shad suffer, many gamefish suffer. Yet, most anglers know little about theshad’s life history, how shad populations influence gamefish numbers and howshad can be captured and used as bait. This article should help remedy thatsituation.

Life History

The species ofshad we’ll discuss here are the gizzard shad and threadfin shad. Although thesethin, silver-colored fish look alike, they differ in one main respect. Gizzardshad attain lengths of 12 to 18 inches, whereas threadfin shad seldom exceed 6inches.

Gizzard andthreadfin shad inhabit natural lakes, manmade impoundments, river pools andbackwaters. They occur in clear and muddy waters, but prefer those that arehighly fertile.

Shad travel inlarge, constantly moving schools. They feed largely on microscopic plants andanimals filtered from the water. They can’t tolerate cold, and large die-offsoccur when the water temperature falls below 45 degrees. This limits theirrange in northern parts of the country.

Because they’resmaller, threadfins remain available longer as gamefish forage, and thus theyare more desirable. Gizzard shad, however, quickly grow too large for most fishto eat. At times, large gizzard shad are so numerous that fisheries biologistsmust conduct large-scale shad kills to restore favorable numbers of small shadand reduce competition with sportfish.

Gizzard shad aredetrimental in some ways, but their importance as forage still outweighs theirnuisance qualities. Shad form a short efficient link in the food chain, and thewell-being of many gamefish depends largely on fluctuations in shad numbers.

Using Shad to Locate Gamefish

Fishing for manysportfish is geared to locating schools of shad. This is especially true withstripers, hybrid stripers and white bass. These fish often are seen slashinginto schools of shad on the water’s surface. Anglers pinpoint feeding fish bylooking for swirls on the surface or shad leaping from the water to escape. Sometimes,several acres of water may be churning with feeding bass as they surround shadin open water or herd them into dead-end bays. Circling gulls diving to catchinjured shad also can reveal the location of feeding bass.

Catching Shad

Fishing with shadis an effective way to catch many gamefish. But while they’re excellent bait,shad are rarely available at bait shops, because they’re difficult to keepalive. You’ll have to catch your own in most areas. Check local regulations todetermine legal methods.

Using a cast netis one effective method, so it’s worthwhile to purchase one and learn to useit. A cast net tossed out near shore a few times often will bring in dozens ofshad.

Sabiki rigs alsoare great shad-catching tools. These are pre-tied rigs that have a main linefrom which several dropper lines are attached. At the end of each dropper lineis a small lure with a tiny hook and a body made of feathers or plastic. Aswivel at the main line’s end provides a place to tie a sinker so the rig canbe dropped quickly to the bottom. If you place the rig in the neighborhood ofshad, they’re quick to strike the tiny lures, and it’s not unusual to bring upthree or four baitfish at a time.

Shad and herringare sensitive and die easily. To keep them healthy, place them in cool, highlyoxygenated water. Use a large, round, well-insulated, aerated tank with coolstream or lake water, or rig a perforated garbage can to carry them alongsideyour boat. A gallon of water supports about four large baitfish.


Catfish anglershave long used cut and live shad for bait. Shad are oily and impart a strongcatfish-attracting scent to the water. Cut or live shad are the top bait forblue catfish because shad comprise over 90 percent of their diet in some waters.But channel catfish relish these baitfish, too, and flatheads readily respondto live shad baits.

Shad often areused to catch catfish in dam tailwaters. Big cats stack up like cordwood belowdams, feeding on dead shad coming through the turbines. Here, it’s best to usea tightline rig, allowing the bait to flutter just off the bottom. Bait the rigwith a live shad hooked through the lips or behind the dorsal fin, or with afilet or chunk cut from a single shad. Cast in front of the gates and let thebait do its job.

Striper and Hybrids

No other fish aremore closely linked to shad populations than striped bass and hybrid stripedbass. Shad account for most of their food in many waters, and abundant shad area requisite for good striper and hybrid fisheries. Because stripers and hybridsare among the few fish growing large enough to eat big gizzard shad, they areoften stocked in impoundments to take advantage of this overabundant resource.

Shad are lethallineside baits. Artificials worked to simulate this forage account for mostangling effort and fish. But live or cut shad often produce fish when otherlive baits and artificials are practically useless.

From Februarythrough May, the spawning urge pushes stripers and hybrids upstream. Thesemigrations are halted by dams, and during this season, tightlining shad belowdams is a productive way to fish.

In summer andwinter, stripers and hybrids move to deep water following shad. During thesetimes, use a fish-finder to probe deep-water habitat for big fish holdingbeneath shad schools. When you’re marking fish directly under your boat at aspecific depth, you can count off that amount of line and place a frisky shadright in front of a fish.

Autumn findsstripers and hybrids schooling and chasing shad on the surface. Watch thesurface for feeding fish early and late in the day, and once they’re sighted,move in and cast a hooked shad into the melee before the fish dive.

White Bass

Small, young shadare the principal prey of the white bass, comprising its entire diet in somewaters. Because they’re not equipped to eat large baitfish, however, selectonly small shad, 3 inches or less, to use for white bass bait.

Spring white bassseek tributaries for spawning runs. During these runs, they can be taken onsmall shad fished below a bobber or on the bottom. In winter and summer, lookfor whites and shad holding over or near deep-water structure in the main bodyof lakes and streams. Summer whites are often caught beneath the lights hungover the water at night to attract shad. In late summer and autumn, “jump fishing”is the prevalent sport, with anglers watching for surface commotion, thenmoving close to cast shad along the edges of feeding schools.

Largemouth Bass

Shad are seldomused by largemouth bass anglers, but if a trophy somehow eluded your den wall,you may want to give them a try. In spring, try free-lining (using no weight) alive, back-hooked shad close to the bank. Then let the shad do its thing. Cruisecoves early in the morning, watching for swirls and presenting the bait on lineas light as your skills will allow. In late summer and fall, largemouths mayfeed on surface-schooling shad, just as stripers, whites and hybrids do, andcan be caught using the same tactics.

Shad influencefish and fishing in many other ways, too. In some lakes, shad are an importantcomponent in the diets of trout, walleye, spotted bass and other gamefish. Inthese waters, fishing with shad or locating shad schools may improve your catchconsiderably.

Wherever shad arefound, consider using them for bait. The fishing action can be intense when aproperly presented shad is used in the right spot at the right time.

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