On rare sportfishing days, there comes a point where you are doing more catching than fishing. Something is needed to restore balance to the day and challenge to the sport.
A common case locally is in blue-fishing, when the choppers charge into the chum line with such abandon that you resort to ultralight tackle or top-water plugs to inject a little difficulty.
For those who have mastered the knack of taking hickory shad from the Rappahannock with spinning tackle and shad darts, there also can come a time when the desire to catch fish is satiated.
Last April 13, I reached a numbed state when over 40 hickories jumped in my shad darts in two hours. It got monotonous.
So I exchanged the ultralight spinning gear for a fly outfit that I'd given much thought to. I pulled out some small, home-made bright-colored flies and made my way swiftly up-stream from the Rte. 1 bridge at Fredericksburg to a favorite pool.
Water lurched at the tops of the chest waders as the spring flow rampaged down the rocky channel. The hickories hung on the lip of the pool, resting after their journey from the Atlantic to breed in these fresh waters. The shad do not feed once they enter the river. They climb onto our offerings out of reflex and instinct.
I cast the orange and white fly, watching as it settled 60 feet out in the green flow. I shook a few extra feet of line loose and paused. The high-density tip sank the small offering swiftly. A pumping, pumping, then stripping retrieve ensued.
The fish was on with a strong strike, leaping wildly and running like a miniature tarpon through the broad pool.
Over the next three hours, I experimented a great deal with retrieves and presentations and was able to take 20 shad on the fly. Considering that the fish bite slower as the sun rises, the tally wasn't bad. Over a number of half-day trips throughout April and May, 30 to 40 fish was an average haul.
But before you grab your trout rod and rush down to the Rappahannock, here are a few pointers. One system took these finicky fish consistently, but when I tried variations on the method, they shunned the fly.
The Rappannock is big water, particularly in April when the shad are in. Chest waders are a must and a graphite rod measuring 8 to 10 feet is best. You can use fiberglass, but the strain from casting will wear you down.
A high-density, sinked-tip fly line (weight 7.9) is needed to get the fly to the desired depth quickly. A leader of eight to 10 feet is adequate, but the tippet should be light - something on the order of 5X - if you want the maximum number of strikes.
There are some shad flies avaiable commercially, but you can tie extremely effective ones yourself. Take a size 6, 8, or 10 hook (Mustad No. 9671) and wrap the shank with lead. Wind on a body of bright orange, yellow, or white rabbit fur or chenille and add a white marabou wing. Tie off thread, lacquer head and the fly is complete.
The area of the Rappahannock above and below Falmouth Bridge (Rte. 1) just north of Fredericksburg is generally most productive. There is publicaccess on both sides of the river.
Look to the main currents and the deepest water for shad. The tails of long pools are particularly good. Don't fool with the fish you see slaping water at the edge of the stream - these are little herring.
The best position to present your fly from is to the side and slightly above the fish. Shoot the line out, mend it to remove the belly, and feed several feet to let the fly sink. Then begin your retrieve.
This is the place where most fly fishermen go wrong. They let the fly swing around slowly, then make a few half-hearted tugs on the line.
A hickory wants a fly moved snappily. It's almost impossible to jig the fly too swifly. The fish have to be goaded into striking.
As soon as the fly starts to swing around, dance it with your rod tip three or four times, then strip in six to 10 inches of line. Keep this procedure up as the streamer swings all the way around. Then start working it back. Most takes come on the swing, as you pump the fly.