Shad on the Delaware

The Not-So-Humble Shad

by Paul Reiss

American shad
A happy angler with a nice four pound buck shad

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 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.

American shad
Jenny and her hard won prize

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 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 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 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.

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 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 effort.

Paul Reiss presenting an American shad caught in the Delaware River.
The author and a fat Delaware river shad

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 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.

FYI - 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, shad roe.