The good burghers of this riverside city have begun to doubt whether the hard, soaking rains they need will ever come. They're worried not about their corn or their flowers or their pretty green lawns.
They're worried about shad.
"It's the first time we've encountered anything like this in the 36 years I've been here," said Charlie Wingard, who works at Chesley's Bait and Tackle and watches the Rappahannock River from his home upstream. "We don't know what's going to happen."
Shad began arriving on their sprawning run a week and a half ago, which sent anglers scurrying for their tackle. Normally where there's one shad there are a million. They don't come in little bunches. At least they didn't used to.
Fredericksburg is where the river rolls over the last riffles and rocks before it becomes a slow-miving tidal estuary. The Rte. 1 Bridge marks the transformation point, and every year at this time fishermen brave the rapids just above the bridge, risking life and limb in pursuit of roe-laden hickory shad. The shad congregate in the deep pools, resting after their long journey from the sea.
But this year shad, along with the herring that normally accompany them, have been slow in arriving. The minor rainfall of recent days was not enough to allay concern about their ever arriving in normal profusion.
"This low water is killing us," said Wingard. "We're used to having nice freshets in the springtime. That's what brings the shad up. They just don't seem to want to come upstream without a good lrise in the water level, and we haven't had one yet. We haven't had any white perch to speak of either (due normally in late March), and we've only had the first bunch of herring. The second jag never got here."
Indeed, the Rappahannock has not been its springtime self. Normally a shad fisherman takes the time to say a few prayers before he ventures out in the lurching, cascading waters in chest-high waters. But last week a veteran fishing partner and I marched out to the deep pools in the middle of the river without even crossing ourselves.
In four hours we caught only a pair of shad. We'd been planning to catch about 100.
That's not to say the shad run is a confirmed washout. Last Wednesday two shad fishermen came into Chesley's with 100 fish they'd caught that afternoon. Included were the year's first females, which normally arrive after the males. But that's the only know example of that kind of success this year.
Why all this breast-beating over the humble hickory shad? Simple. They may be bony and hard to eat, but shad remain one of the most wonderful fighting fish accessible to the landbound angler, and the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg is widely regarded as one of the very best shad fishing spots on the East Coast.
When shad arrive in earnest here there are times when fishing is too easy. I've seen people move out of a place because they were getting strikes on every cast. They wanted more challenge.
Hickory shar are not much to eat. They are riddled with tiny bones and at an average size of about 1 1/2 pounds, there isn't enough meat to make the chore of boning them worthwhile. Their cousins, white shad, are bigger and more desirable as table fare.
But few fish in the world can match the fighting energy of the hickory, which is called "the poor man's tarpon."
Hickories are guaranteed to jump, run and strip line from the reel. They will leap three feet out of the water sometimes, and all you can do is hang on and admire them.
Some people slit the females and take the roe, which strikes me as a waste of a good fish. Many others simply catch them and turn them loose.
That makes more sense, given the overall troubled nature of shad populations. Hickory and white shad are both protected species in Maryland where their reproductive success has dropped to almost zero. Shad are still doing well in the Rappahannock, a very clean river, and other streams in Virginia and elsewhere along the East Coast. But it is distribing to kill any fish just for its eggs when that fish species is in trouble anywhere.
So I catch them purely for sport. Here's how:
Use a shad dart, which is a leadheaded jig with a little hair tied around the hook. Chesley's has its own special brand of darts that work wonderfully on the Rappahannock, but Susky darts and Nugessers and other varieties available around Washington will work, too.
Darts of one-eithth to one-quarter ounce are right for the Rappahannock, and should be fished on a four- to six-pound test line.
It helps to wear chest or hip waders to get out to the big pools in the middle of the river. The fish rest in these pools after expending great energy swimming upstream through the rapids. Cast the dart across the current and slightly upstream, then retrieve it slowly as it is carried downriver the the current.
You won't have any doubt if a shad hits. When they are biting right they attack the dart.
Best hours for fishing are dawn and dusk. Dawn means an early start from Washington, a 1 1/4-hour to Fredericksburg.
But it's worth it. When the shad are in thick you might catch 20 to 30 in a couple of hours.
Meanwhile, you'll have enjoyed the serenity of a thundering, clean spring river that's teeming with life. Assuming that it ever gets around to thundering and teeming this year.