Shad fishing on the Delaware
River with a guide. The American Shad is a fast and challenging light
The Not-So-Humble Shad
by Paul Reiss
The little Daiwa UL7 reel started singing as soon as
the line popped off thedownrigger. Jenny, my 17 year old daughter,
grabbed the rod, raised it up high and held on. The four pound test
monofilament line traced an arc from straight behind the boat all the way
to the middle of the river. As we watched, the line rose and
suddenly the four pound quicksilver flash on the end was airborne. I scrambled
to clear the lines and cables at the back of the boat, and then, as surely
as Murphy's law was
channel of the river was still in the forties, so the shad were following
the flow of warmer water close to the banks. We were anchored about
30 feet from shore, just upstream of a rock outcropping which forced the
fish to detour toward midstream to maintain their depth. I set the
the lines up right in their path in hopes of getting their attention and
triggering a strike. While my daughter and I were both busy jigging
little lead shad darts off to the sides of our 16 foot aluminum boat, the
fly rod released from the downrigger and the reel began screaming.
Jenny quickly picked it up and let the streaking shad put some distance
|written, the fish headed right back toward us at lightning speed.
Within seconds, the gear trailing the boat turned into one big tangle and
Jenny's shad was free. Her look told me I'd better get to work untangling
the lines so that we can hook up again, and soon.
New Jersey is not usually thought of as a
hotbed of freshwater fishing, but there is no better locale to fish for
the American Shad than New Jersey's beautiful portion of the Delaware River
. The shad, a lesser known, migratory member of the herring family
returns to its birthwaters each year in the early spring. They come
at the beginning of April when the water temperature begins to top
the 50 degree mark. At first just a few at a time, then in small
pods and finally, when the run is in full swing more than a million shad
work their way up the Delaware river. The three or four pound bucks
aggressively seek to spawn with the four to six pound roe filled females.
Shad become the fishing royalty of the river until the end of May, when
they have assured the existence of a new generation and then, spent, succumb
to the cycle of their species.
It took just a few minutes to rig up again and Jenny
was quickly into another high speed tussle with a spunky buck shad.
These silvery gamesters fight like a miniature tarpon. With ultralight
tackle and their ability to use the river's current to their advantage,
shad provide the angler with an exciting challenge. Jenny's second
shad hooked up on a fingernail sized flutter spoon tied onto a four pound
test leader on a five weight fly rod. The light rig was fastened
onto a Cannon downrigger and suspended five feet off the bottom in 14 feet
of water. It was a drizzly early April day and the water temperature
was hovering at about 52 degrees close to shore. The main
A happy angler with a nice four pound buck
and when the fish are in a mood to hit the dart. The angler jigs
the dart, tied to light line, in the path of the migrating shad.
When shad are taking darts, they are great fun and the dart is a great
technique to supplement other methods.
Jenny and her hard won prize
|between us. It was too soon to start palming the reel and Jenny was
going to make sure I had time to clear the other lines. This fellow
headed straight downstream and then came to a complete stop. Jenny
began slowly reclaiming line while it appeared that the shad was reclaiming
his strength. Suddenly he headed right back toward us at full speed.
Shad have a paper thin mouth and a hook quickly tears an opening around
itself. If the line goes slack for just a moment, the hook will simply
drop out of the fish's mouth. Jenny started reeling for all she was
worth, trying to lead the fish sideways while keeping the line tight.
The fish obliged and took off on a second run out toward the middle and
into the current. When he finally slowed down, his antics had stripped
over a hundred fifty feet of line off the reel. With the current
helping him, it was a long slow crank easing him back toward the boat.
We both knew that he would take off again once he came within sight of
us. This time he had only enough strength left to strip off another
thirty feet! When Jenny brought him back to the boat, I slipped the
net under him and lifted him in. The hook dropped out of his mouth
the minute he hit the net. Jenny had done a nice job playing this
fellow. We admired the beautiful four pound streamlined silver body
for a moment and then Jenny slid him gently back into the river.
I use three different techniques to catch
shad. The most common technique but not always the most dependable,
is the classical shad dart. It can be a great technique when you
can get the darts to where the fish are
My two favorite methods utilize downriggers.
In each case, I tie a small flutterspoon to a very light leader, usually
about four pound test. I can use any rod and reel combo I like with
the downriggers, but I enjoy the lighter gear most. Early in the season,
when the fish are steadily moving upriver and at their freshest, I try
to anchor my boat right in their path. With a little
Much of the shad's lifecycle
is well known while much remains uncertain and mysterious. Predicting
how aggressively they'll bite, which technique to use and just where they
are requires constant adjustment, experimentation and a willingness to
try everything. After years of successfully guiding for shad, I can
almost always get them to bite, but I still don't clearly understand
|exploration, a thermometer and a depth finder, it's not too hard to
find where the fish are moving. The river's current, creating the
action of the flutter spoon, is enough to trigger strikes from the migrating
fish. This technique, at the right time and in the right spot can be tremendously
effective and absolutely great fun. It enables the angler to spend
most of his or her time playing fast, strong fish while the guide or fishing
partner handles the gear.
As the water warms, toward the end of April,
the fish begin to settle into holes and deep stretches of the river.
Slow trolling with flutterspoons trailing about 30 feet behind the downrigger
balls begins to become more effective than anchoring. Working the
boat back and forth through likely looking water can often yield fast paced
action. This is the time of year when big roe shad are readily hooked.
The heavy females fight quite differently from the lighter, quicker bucks.
They tend to grind down toward the bottom and make determined bulldog runs,
using the current and river contours to enhance the power of their deep,
flat bodies. Fighting a big roe is an exercise in patience and technique
for an angler. The satisfaction of hauling a hefty seven pound
roe into the boat is a wonderful, and fairly frequent reward for the anglers
The author and a fat Delaware river shad
|what makes them do it. They don't eat macroscopic
forage during their life in the ocean and they don't eat at all during
their spawning time on the river. The structure of their mouths and
their gill raker mechanisms, attest to the shad's diet of plankton.
It has been theorized that, like salmon, shad strike out of annoyance.
Others suggest that it is a component of their mating behaviour, or a defense
against small, roe eating fishes. Could be, but it doesn't lend itself
to easy proof. Nonetheless, strike they do and what a great thing
that is for springtime anglers in New Jersey.
Several Shad festivals are held along the Delaware River in New
Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania during April and May. Visitors
can enjoy smoked shad, local shad specialties and the premier shad delicacy,
For more information on booking a Shad fishing charter, contact:
For Reservations, please call
Grant Scott - 570 223-9836
or E-mail Grant at:
See Grant's website at;