Hickory shad: Gorgeous dawns on a wild, plunging river, a blood-red sun burning away mist shrouding the chapel spire in a quaint Virginia town, and crisp mornings that melt almost imperceptibly into joyously hot days by noon. And best of all, a game fish that pounces onto darts and streamers with abandon, leaping from the water like a miniature salmon, nose and tail curled downward in a silver arch.
The fish inhale lures and flies until arms literally ache from fighting them - a virtual angling nirvana after the long, cold days of winter.
But to a dishearteningly high proportion of those who clamber over the rocky banks of the Rappahannock river near Fredericksburg each spring, the words hickory shad mean frustration.
Why? The wrong approach, inappropriate gear, bad advice, poor timing, improper presentation, too fast a retrieve, too slow a retrieve - the list of reasons for not connecting is a long one. Worse yet, after a trip or two without catching anything except bothersome herring, a negative attitude often sets in. The confidence wanes, further crippling one's chances of solving the riddle of shad.
The run of hickories up the Rappahannock is not as thick as it was six years ago, but those who blame this for their lack of luck are groping for excuses. Few people catch a hundred shad a day anymore, but those who've unlocked the hickory puzzle can easily count on 20 or 30 fish in a half-day's effort during the prime period when the shad inhabit the Fredericksburg sector of the riiver, April through mid-May. At one to 2 1/2 pounds of pure energy per fish, that makes for some extraordinary sport.
With reduced numbers of shad in the river, though, mistakes do have a greater effect. Attention to minute details in angling technique is necessary to trick these fish consistently as they head up the river to spawn. But score you can, if you fish diligently and use the proper presentations.
The approach I've settled on, after much experimentation, fools an average of 30 to 40 shad per half-day trip with spinning gear, 20 to 30 with fly tackle. There may be other systems that work, but this one is tried and proved.
Fifty degrees is the magic mark that sends hickories on their spawning run up the Rapahannock. As usual, this mercury reading came late in March, and the fish began their arduous ascent that has them now congregated by the tens of thousands around the U.S. 1 Falmouth Bridge, just north of Fredericksburg. This is the fall line. Right here - roughly half a mile above and below the bridge - is where the fishing centers. Below the bridge, where boats are useful, the hickories bite best on a rising tide. Above the bridge, in the fast water, early morning is the prime period, late evening second-best.
Concentrate on large, deep pools and eddies just off the main current. The lower third of the big pools are the choicest hickory lies. Approach these prime areas from the side and slightly upstream.
Spinning tackle and shad darts represent the surest way to trick shad. Some anglers like to use a spoon-and-dart combination, but either a single dart or pair of darts will entice just as many fish.
Early in the season, before the shad have been fished over much and when waters are still high, large darts do best - roughly an inch and a half long and a quarter of an ounce. As the river level recedes and the fish see more and more hardware hurled at them, hone down to one-inch darts weighing an eighth or even sixteenth of an ounce. Darts with red or fluorescent pink heads, white bodies and white tails work best, but don't hesitate to try other colors if the fish aren't cooperating.
Four-pound line is the best compromise between strength and refinement. Your spool should be filled nearly to the brim to allow the long, arching casts sometimes necessary to reach distant edges of pools on this broad river.
Fast and erratic. Those are the key words for success with retrieves on hickories. The fish do no feeding during their spawning run. You must goad them to strike by rekindling atavistic instincts from their predatory life at sea.
Let the dart sink for several seconds, then pump the rod tip sharply as you work the handle with a steady cranking motion. When a hickory climbs on he'll strip line from the reel in short, staccato bursts and leap wildly across the surface in flashes of silver brilliance. Bass fight feebly in comparison.
For fly-rod buffs, a high-density sinking tip line in the 7 to 9 weight range and small weighted streamers are the tools needed to pull in hickories. To tie a deadly shad fly, wrap the shank of a Mustad No. 9671 hook (size 8 to 12) with thin lead wire; dub on a hot orange, yellow or white rabbit-fur body; add a white marabou wing; finish with a large red head built up with tying thread.
Cast across the stream and work this fly through deep pools with a sharp jigging-stripping retrieve. A hickory should engulf it in short order.
The Rap is big, deep water, quite cold at this time of year.Wear chest waders, preferably with felt soles, and use a staff. Even still, the river will lap menacingly at the lip of your wader tops. Use caution.
The best fishing comes during the first few hours after dawn. With this in mind, an angler who arises at 4 a.m. and drives south on I-95 to the Route 17 exit can hit the water at first light, fish for five hours and be back in Washington in time for lunch. It's hard to think of a more pleasant way to spend an April morning. CAPTION: Picture,