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The Annual Shad Run

Catch shad up river now!


Shad on the Roanoke River

Dave catches a shad

Photo by Ron Brooks
American and hickory shad are on the move and catchable each spring. Their annual spawning rite takes them upstream in every river with saltwater access. This spring is no different, and the run appears to be larger than normal.

Rivers from Maine to North Florida will fill with spawning shad into the late May timeframe. Catching these hard fighting fish is easy and can be spectacular with the right tackle.

The Roanoke River runs from Virginia into North Carolina. The dam just above the city of Roanoke Rapids prevents them from traveling upstream any farther. Consequently huge concentrations of shad are present for a couple of months in a relatively small area of water.

In normal water years, the rapids here prevent boaters from traveling upstream. In low water years, it also prevents the shad from doing the same thing. At high water, (and 2003 was a very high water year) boaters and shad can run all the way to the dam. During March and April of 2003 the water was thirty feet over normal and the rocks from the rapids were submerged far below the water line.

Shad can be caught on a variety of lures, the most popular being small “shad dart” jigs and small gold or silver spoons. On ultralight spinning tackle, these lures can provide hours of fun. Over 100 fish per day is not only possible, but also quite common.

Fly tackle for these “poor man’s tarpon” has become extremely popular, particularly in North Carolina. Number 4 or 5 fly tackle – or even smaller – is the order of the day. Sinking fly line is also a requisite, as these fish like to stay deep in the current. A short eighteen-inch leader is all that is required. Longer leaders cause problems with sinking fly line. Small clouser type flies in a variety of colors work very well.

The reason shad populate a particular river is because that river has an abundance of moving water – current – something that is necessary for their eggs to properly hatch. Moving upstream in 55 to 60 degree water during the day, they will swim about in a spawning ritual when the sun goes down.

The shad run is watched intensely by many anglers who follow the main run from the ocean inlets to the last mile of navigable river. Beginning as early as late December in North Florida and lasting as long as July in some northern rivers, the shad make their way up river. Many states, including North Carolina, provide daily reports on the location of the main run of shad. These reports are found, in North Carolina as an example, on the WRD web pages.

If you fish for shad, there are some hints that will make you more successful. Like any fish, shad do not like to fight the current all the time. They seek and find the edge of current rips, less turbulent water behind rocks and boulders, and the relatively calm water in feeder creeks. Fishing the main flow of current is not usually productive.

Because of the difficulties involved in getting smaller baits down deep in strong current, not many anglers anchor their boats. Most fishermen, in particular the fly rod bunch, will drift the river and hit those rips and backwater areas with their flies. After making a drift down river, they crank up and run back upstream to do it again. Be advised that sometimes forty or fifty boats are doing this, so it can get crowded.

The trick for the fly-rodder is to dump your sinking line and allow the fly to get as close to the bottom as possible. Then strip the fly back in short four inches movements. Most often, a good rip can only be cast to twice on any drift. Anchoring to fish a rip can get you in trouble. Others drifting the area have little control over their boats. Best to go with the crowd and drift.

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