by Grant Alvis
Living in the Richmond area, it’s only natural to have been exposed to the Shad fishery that the local rivers have to offer. Every spring the annual Shad Run sweeps through the tidal rivers of Virginia and the fun begins! Once the water temperatures reach the mid to high 40’s the Shad begin appearing in Virginia's rivers. There are two primary species of shad, Hickory and the American Shad. The Hickory is the more prevalent of the two species and tends to appear first, usually around the 1 - 1.5 pound range. The Hickory is known for its speed and the acrobatic jumps they will be sure to perform as soon as they are hooked. This is what earned them the nickname “the poor man’s tarpon”. The American Shad usually appear one to two weeks later and they grow to a much larger size. It’s not uncommon for an eight plus pound American Shad to be caught each year. These fish are characterized by brute strength and long drawn out runs. Americans don’t tend to jump as much as Hickory Shad but the fights usually last much longer. The American Shad are illegal to possess in the state of Virginia due to their declining numbers in recent years, but they have begun to make a comeback. The Shad usually appear in the James River first, and then begin to show up further north in about 1 week increments.
There are a couple of different ways to target these exciting fish. The most popular way among anglers is with traditional spinning gear. A 5 – 6 foot light action rod with a 1500 – 2500 size reel spooled with 2 - 8 pound line is all that’s required for the setup. Make sure the rod has a fast action and that the reel has a smooth drag. The fast action rod allows for a better feel of the lure which is helpful when the fish aren’t hitting lures hard. The smooth drag allows the angler to handle the constant runs that the fish will make. The typical lures of choice for shad are shad darts and small colored spoons. The way I like to rig these are: Tie a shad dart/spoon under a barrel swivel with about 16 - 20 inches for a leader. Above the barrel swivel slide a 1/8oz. inline weight onto the main line and attach the mainline to the top of the swivel, then peg the egg weight to prevent it from sliding. This rig allows the fishermen enough weight to cast the lure, but it is still light enough to allow the bait to drift fairly naturally in the current. Make long cast across or directly down current and allow the rig to sink. Slow retrieves with the occasional twitch will trigger the strikes. Vary this retrieve until you find what is working that particular day.
Another popular way to target the Shad and my personal favorite is fly fishing. Anglers will need a 9 foot 5 - 8 weight rod with a large arbor reel to match. The large arbor is to allow you to fight the occasional fish that will take you into the reel on a run. The fly line is the most important part of the entire combo for shad fishing. In the James River in Richmond, I typically use a 24ft sink tip fly line. The sink tip usually weighing in at 250 grains. This fly line sinks around 7 - 9 inches per second which allows you to get down to where the shad are in the water column easily. Make medium to long length casts down and across the current. Allow the fly line to sink different amounts of time until you find where the fish are holding. Short quick continuous strips until you retrieve the fly all the way in. If you miss a fish keep stripping the fly in because they will usually hit twice. Once you find the depth the fish are holding, you can repeat the same process again and again and you should hook up every time. Eventually the school moves in the water column (usually deeper) and you will have to find them again.
Shad like to hold in different places throughout the rivers. The most common place to find shad is a current break. Wing damns, channel turns, islands, bridge pilings and obstructions on the bottom can all cause eddies in the current. These eddies are what the shad like to hold in because they can rest without having to swim constantly. Shad usually flood the rivers and you can catch them most anywhere during the spawn, but focusing on areas like these will give you the best chance. Tide is also a large player in shad fishing. Personally, I have always had better luck when the tide is moving. Shad don’t seem to prefer to move around much on a slack tide, and the best bite is usually right after the tide change. The Shad utilize the tide in their spawn as it helps them move up and down the rivers with ease.
In closing, these fish can be a blast to catch, and when the run is in full swing it is not uncommon to have 100+ fish days. Additionally, one of the best things about it is that you typically don’t have to break the bank in order to have a good time and catch a ton of these hard fighting fish. I hope this has given you a better understanding of Shad fishing and be sure to stop by Bass Pro Shops for all of your Shad fishing supplies!
I hope to see you on the water,
Grant is currently majoring in Environmental Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He’s been an avid fisherman since he was old enough to hold a rod!