BY JD RICHEY
When the cottonwoods in the Central Valley start dropping their snow-like seed pods in the spring, many North State anglers’ thoughts turn to shad.
No, not the little baitfish we see in many local reservoirs — those are threadfin shad. I’m of course talking about American shad, here. While they look similar to their tiny cousins, American shad average 2 to 3 pounds and can top 7 pounds. They are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their lives in the ocean and then swim up rivers to spawn in the spring and it’s that ocean time that allows them to get so much larger.
Members of the herring family, American shad were imported from the Atlantic back in the late 1800s and were released into the Sacramento River. The fish quickly took a liking to their new digs and eventually spread throughout California and as far north as the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Our major shad streams are the Sacramento, American, Feather and Yuba, but they can also be found in the Sam Joaquin and Klamath drainages as well.
American shad, also known as “poor man’s tarpon,” are extremely scrappy on 4- to 6-pound spinning gear or a 6-weight fly rod. When hooked, they’ll burn line and jump all over the place — and are a blast to catch. Furthermore, they come upriver every spring by the gazillions, so you can often catch them until your arm seizes up.
Shad migrations in California generally peak sometime between April and June, depending on the individual river — and water conditions. Generally speaking, the first waves enter freshwater in April, and by mid-May, fishing is usually going strong. The action will continue at a torrid clip in many areas until the middle of June and some streams pump out good fishing all the way through July. The early portion of the run is usually dominated by small, eager males that will weigh 1 to 4 pounds, but as the season progresses, the big roe shad move upstream, and they can sometimes reach 6 or 7 pounds.
Most shad fishing is done with light spinning gear. In smaller streams, a light 6- to 7 ½-foot stick with a soft tip and plenty of backbone in the lower two-thirds of its length is perfect. A forgiving tip will help protect light leaders and also aid in the detection of subtle strikes. Having a stout lower end will enable you to turn fish without wearing them out to the point of exhaustion.
Spinning reels should be loaded with 4- to 8-pound test. Mono is fine, but I’ve switched over to 10-pound P-Line TCB Braid (with a 6-foot section of fluorocarbon leader) in recent years. It has the diameter of 2-pound mono so it casts well and I get positive hooksets.
Fly anglers can also have a blast catching shad and the basic outfit consists of a 9-foot rod in the No. 5- to 7-weight range and a shooting head or sink tip matched to the water conditions. Leaders should be kept short – in the 3 to 6-foot range.
Along the East Coast, small flutter spoons like Dick Nite’s are the top weapons for anglers fishing famed waters like the Delaware, Pamunkey and Connecticut rivers, and the same holds true up on the Columbia. In the Central Valley, however, the mini jig is king. Most shad anglers here throw 1- to 2-inch curly-tailed grubs on jigheads ranging in size from 1/32 to 1/16 ounces. While not as popular as they once were, shad darts still catch plenty of fish every spring, especially in the Sacramento River from Discovery Park to Walnut Grove.
When I was growing up shad fishing near Sacramento the 1970s, red/white was the hot color scheme, but chartreuse and champagne are the two favorites now, with the edge seemingly going to the pink shades.
Shad flies are generally sparsely dressed attractor patterns with lead barbell eyes and short tails. The same color patterns I just mentioned work on feathers and glue as well. One interesting note is when the caddis start coming off during the last half hour of daylight on streams like American and Sacramento near Red Bluff, you’ll often see shad slurping the insects off the surface like trout do. A properly placed Elk Hair Caddis will sometimes get you a grab or two per night but the window is short.
Where to find shad
One of the beauties of shad fishing is its inherent simplicity. You don’t need a fancy boat and $4,000 worth of gear to be successful. You can catch plenty of fish from shore and all you really need is a light rod, a handful of lures and some desire. The key is to be able to locate shad holding water.
Deep, slow flats (6 to 12 feet deep) are good places to begin your quest. Shad tend to hold throughout the heat of the day in such spots, where they’ll often wait for evening before they continue upstream. You’ll also find them at the mouths of tributary streams, along current seams and in soft current edges. Shad aren’t big fans of ascending falls, heavy rapids, fish ladders and the like, so the areas just downstream of such obstructions are also very worthy of investigation.
Exceptions to the rules come during periods of extremely high or low water. In big flows, shad will seek out the edges of a river, where the current isn’t as strong. In low water years, the deepest holes are the top fish holing areas.
Once you’ve found a good-looking spot, start by tying on a lure that’s just heavy enough to get to the bottom but light enough to drift with the current. If you need extra weight to get down, add some splitshot or a slip sinker 18 to 24 inches above the lure. From shore or an anchored boat, position yourself upstream of the water you want to fish and cast slightly down and across the current. Allow your offering to sink near the bottom and swing in a downstream arc. If you don’t get bit, try imparting a little extra action to the lure as it drifts by raising the rod tip 12 inches or so every 3 to 5 seconds. This jigging motion seems to really appeal to the curious nature of the fish and will draw strikes when a simple “dead drift” approach doesn’t work.
Let the rig swing through the entire run, and when it ends up in a position directly downstream of you, jig it a few times in place and then reel up and cast again. Be sure to cover every inch of the area you’re fishing because shad can be very easy to miss. They swim in long, almost single-file schools and a lure cast a couple feet on either side of the fish can go unnoticed.
When water temperatures are above 60 degrees, you’ll feel a sharp, unmistakable “yank” on your rod tip when a fish grabs your offering. In cooler water, the bite is much more subtle and you really have to stay focused to feel it. Either way, set the hook immediately because shad will dump your jig as quickly as they pick it up. Hopefully, your hook will find the roof of the fish’s mouth, where it’s most likely to stay put. The sides of a shad’s mouth are paper thin and extremely delicate – and when a fish is hooked in that area, you can almost guarantee that your hook will pull free sometime during the fight.
When battling a shad near the boat, keep an eye out for followers. Many times you’ll notice other shad following the one you have on. These trailing fish tend to be extremely aggressive and will gobble up almost anything dropped into their faces. Have a buddy throw a jig or fly in next to your hooked fish and it’s an almost guaranteed double hook-up.
While shad can be taken throughout the day, the final 60 minutes of daylight is the “magic hour.” That’s when they normally shake off the midday blues and go on an all-out blitzkrieg assault and anything you put in the water will get eaten. As the sun continues to slip behind the horizon, the action gets even more frantic and its common for everybody in sight to have a fish on. And just as the fishing reaches its climax, it suddenly goes dead with the onset of night. Shad get into spawning mode after the sun goes down, and while you’ll see them darting around just under the surface after dark, they won’t bite.
Early mornings can also be productive, but the fish will generally get less enthusiastic as the sun gets higher in the sky. Of course, there are plenty of trips when the fish bite hard all day long, too.
Okay, so now for the big question: are shad good to eat? While a lot of people in the Valley consider them sport only, the American shad’s scientific name, alosa sapidissima translates to “most savory.” They’ve been an extremely important food fish on the East Coast since the birth of the nation — George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are two of the better known shad enthusiasts.
The big issue with shad flesh is that it is full of tiny bones. An old Indian legend says a porcupine ventured down to the river, turned itself inside out and swam off as a shad. My preferred method for preparing shad is smoking and then canning them. The pressure cooking process dissolves all the bones and then you can eat them without any worries. As it turns out, shad is pretty tasty.