If meat in the pot is the goal of most perch-snatchers and herring-snaggers, shad-anglers exemplify the opposite end of the fishing spectrum. Sport is first and foremost on the minds of those who chase these silvery migrants. Once you've latched onto a shad or two -- be it a hickory or white -- you'll understand why.
Perhaps more than any other game fish, the shad is the paradigm of pure fighting fury. With the strength of most fish twice its size, it'll rip and wrench line from your drag in alternating guttural spurts and high-pitched runs.
And they never give up. As one veteran Delaware River shadder put it, "you never really whip a shad. You just fight him, fight him some more, and when you finally work him in close enough to slip the hook out, he's still fighting as hard as when he first struck."
Two shads -- the hickory and the white or American shad -- migrate up mid-Atlantic rivers. Hickories are the smaller of the pair, at one to 2 1/2 pounds, but they're often found and caught in greater numbers than whites and are more acrobatic fighters.
White shad are much larger, averaging three pounds for bucks, four to six for roe fish. With this much bulk to heft, the white doesn't leap quite the yard-high distances above the surface that hickories do. They do perform a few bellyflops throughout a typical fight, however, and the stamina and brute strength of their underwater tactics are incredible. While prime waters can yield catches of six to ten white shad a day to lucky anglers, the tally will never approach the 40 to 50 accumulated by skilled hickory shad anglers in a day's casting.
The smaller hickories are first to invade the rivers, reaching Richmond or Fredericksburg on the James and Rappanhannock rivers by late March. (At this point, no one seems willing to guess whether the ghastly kerosene slick unleashed on the Rappanhannock will hold back or destroy the runs of shad in that river this year.)
The Potomac doesn't have a hickory run, but the Susquehanna and tributary Deer and Octoraro creeks have fair-to-middling migrations in April and May.
Hickories spawn at the fall line, where tidal and freshwater met, when the water temperature reaches 50 degrees f. Almost always this occurs in late March in Virginia and early April in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
If you're fishing in the tidal portion of a river, concentrate on the rising flow. Above the tideline, dawn and dusk are the prime times for hickories.
Reading the water to pinpoint shad holding lies is perhaps the hardest part of taking these silver sea travelers. Eddies just on the edge of the main current and tails of long, deep pools are choice resting spots for hickories. These should draw the bulk of your fish-searching efforts. And when you connect, keep probing the area. The shad move in schools and where there's one, there are usually others.
Small red-and-white or red-and-yellow darts of 1/16 to 1/4 ounce are the top offerings for both white and hickory shad. Some like to fish these in combination with wobbling spoons, but most of the shad will strike the dart, so I don't even bother stocking spoons any more.
Thin line in the two- to six-pound category is vital, so that you can get a fast sink-rate for the dart and a life-like action as you dance it back through the bubbling currents.
Every shad angler has his or her favorite retrieve. Some like to crawl the darts in like a plastic worm. Some jig them softly. Others rip the lure back as fast as they can crank the reel handle.
Strangely, all will catch fish at times. I've found, however, that the most consistent action comes with a medium-to-fast retrieve. Cast the lure up and across stream, let it sink several seconds, then pump the rod tip while reeling steadily. A sharp, thumping strike should occur.
The same approach works with a fly rod, using a high-density, sinking tip line and weighted streamers of orange, yellow and red. Let the fly sink a bit, then jig the rod tip vigorously while stripping in short segments of line.
Whites, the king shad, arrive a few weeks after the hickories, surging into mid-Atlantic rivers by mid-April. The James has a good white shad run, the Rappahannock fair, the Potomac good, the Susquehanna poor, the Delaware superb.
The run up the Potomac is actually pretty small, but it's concentrated so tightly around Fletcher's Boat House and upstream a short ways that the angler almost has the fish pinpointed before starting out.
The favorite technique among skilled Potomac shad fishermen such as Dickie Tehaan is to find an edge of current where the shad pass through, anchor the boat upstream from it, and allow several darts to trail behind in the current. Not a terribly exciting method -- until a four- or five-pound roe fish jumps on the dart. Then it's sheer bedlam until the fish is landed or breaks off.
Of course you can lift the rods occasionally to impart a bit of action to the darts. And it's wise to move to a different spot if the quarry doesn't cooperate within an hour or so.But the dart dangling almost stationary in the current seems to draw the most attacks.
This is also the most popular shad fishing technique among boat anglers on the Delaware River, the granddaddy of sha d streams on the East Coast. Many shore fishermen and wading anglers also work this scenic river from Bethlehem upstream to the Catskills of New York and the famed Lackawaxen Pool where Zane Grey once cast his flies.
The techniques shore anglers use here for whites are similar to those hickory shad anglers employ on our local rivers. They cast and retrieve in likely pools and jig their darts back through the current.
Waders and boat fishermen can find many access areas along this river. The best shadding on the Delaware will begin in mid-April and extend through much of June in the upper reaches around New York. It's a four- to six-hour drive, but, if you can afford the gas, well worth the trip.
If not, the shad in our own Potomac should hang around through much of May.