fly fishing

Freshwater Tarpon??

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Freshwater Tarpon??

Brief History:

            In 1871, Seth Green, known as the pioneer of fish farming and credited with inventing the fishing reel, planted shad fry in the Sacramento River, California.  Anglers began to steadily fish for shad on the West Coast well after that, closer to the 1900’s, and mostly to put food on the table.  About thirty years later, the first shad caught on a fly rod was reported on the East Coast.  In the late 1980’s, when fly fishing really began to soar, California became a hot-spot for catching shad on a fly because shad numbers had dramatically decreased on the East Coast.  Shad enter rivers between May and June to spawn, and are easily caught in the American River, Feather River, and lower Sacramento River.  As far as eating shad goes, you either love them or hate them.  Those who hate the taste of shad dubbed them, “Trash Fish.”  However, the chaos they create when hooked remind fly fishers of the silver beasts in saltwater, Tarpon.  I’ve been calling Shad “Freshwater Tarpon” since the late 90’s.

Shad travel is large schools, usually moving near dusk and at night.  It is not uncommon to catch 50 fish or more from a single school.  Male shad average from one to two pounds, while females average from four to five pounds (they are older and are full of roe).  The current world record for an American Shad is eleven pounds, four ounces.  It was caught in 1986 on the Connecticut River.  Shad spend the majority of their lives in the saltwater before returning to rivers to spawn.  While the East Coast spends millions of dollars trying to revive and fix their struggling and once dominant Shad populations, the West Coast sees millions of shad returning annually.  Shad are quick to smash a swinging “shad dart,” and often go air born when hooked.  It’s a spectacular sight!  Once you get dialed in to this amazing fishery, between May and June, you’ll be hooked.


You can go several ways here.  If you choose to cover a lot of water, but want to stay in one area, I’d use a Spey Rod.  Most guys use a single-handed 6 or 7-weight rod.  If you choose to cover a lot of water on foot or by boat, go with a standard fast-action rod.  I use a 9 ½ feet, six weight rod.  It works well with shad darts or dry flies, and the extra six inches helps with casting the sink-tip lines all day.

When it comes to a reel, I always use a large arbor reel capable of holding a minimum of 200 yards of backing with a disc drag.  Shad tend to smoke line from the reel similar to Bonefish.  I’m always happy to look down and see extra backing after the initial run after hooking a fish.  When the Shad go air born and come at you with speed, it’s nice to retrieve line quickly with the large arbor.

The traditional fly line I use is a Teeny 200 grain.  Sometimes, I like using a multi-tip line, one I can change from 200 grain up to 500 grain in a matter of seconds.  If you consistently get the fly in the right part of the water column, the Shad will eat it every time.  In fact, if you stop catching Shad, it’s probably not you, the fish have just moved on.  When that happens, move upstream until you find similar fishy water.

As with the rest of fly fishing when it comes to fly selection, there are a million combinations of shad darts-mostly intended to hook you, not Shad.  Spin fishermen also primarily use shad darts to catch Shad, which has contributed to the overwhelming variance in the fly/lure.  I primarily use two types of shad darts, those with buck tail and those without.  Lately, or should I say, this Shad season, “Bug Eye” shad darts are the “Gotta Have” flies.  I use two colors every season and do very well.  I use Chartreuse or pink.  Shad fly sizes vary, and are called by different names (not #14 for example, but 1/32).  The easiest way to explain the size I use is to grab a penny and grab shad darts the same size as the penny.  Some fly shops size the flies as #6 or #8.  Most shad darts are made of chenille bodies and have bead eyes.  Other colors I use are white, orange, and red.  There are a few times when you can get Shad to rise to a large dry fly, such as a #12 Goddard Caddis.  If you skate the fly in the shallows around dusk, when the fish are mating, occasionally a Shad will take the fly on the surface.  The eruption will take you by surprise every time.

Shad dart:

Shad dart:

(Gear continued)

Leader selection is also different from using traditional tapered leaders.  Shad are not bashful.  I typically use a six to eight-foot section of six to eight-pound monofilament.  When the season rolls around I tend to lose a lot of Shad in the beginning because I rip the fly out of their soft mouth.  With the heavier monofilament, I tend to pull the fly right out.  Once you get the fish hooked be careful not to horse it, otherwise the fly will come out.

How To:

If you have some familiarity with swinging soft-hackles or streamers, you can step into Shad fishing fairly nicely.  The concept is among the most simple in fly fishing.  Shad tend to congregate just below or just above long riffles.  This is because spawning usually occurs over gently sloping areas with fine gravel or sandy bottoms. The water tends to be a few feet deep and moves at a medium pace.

To get started, I’ll work the water closest to the bank I’m standing on.  I don’t enter the water to do this.  I’ll aim a cast upstream a bit, do a few mends of the slack line, then get situated for a tug, smack, or fish taking to the air with my shad dart in its mouth.  As the current takes the fly down stream, the fly line drags along the surface of the river.  When this occurs, the fly begins to swing through the riffle.  Normally, drag is a no-no in fly fishing; however, for shad, it’s a good thing.  As the fly buzzes through the riffle, Shad cannot resist it.  As with streamers and soft hackles, when the shad dart gets to the end of the drift, directly below me, I’ll do several short strips, and then let the fly drift downstream again.  Often times Shad will smack the fly as you start to strip it.  Shad tend to hook themselves, but a slight strip-set usually secures the fly in their mouth.

Male Shad, called “Bucks,” are smaller, younger, and more agile; thus, they tend to go air born once hooked.  It is important to remember when they go air born you must bow your rod to the fish because they have very soft mouths.   To bow your rod to the fish, point the rod tip at the Shad where it exited the water and try to follow the fish in the direction it is traveling with your rod tip.  This simple step will often keep the fish hooked, allowing you to land it.

I continue to work the riffle, carefully moving farther and farther out into the river, until I consistently reach the far bank.  As I move out, I’m working the water.  The key to Shad fishing is getting the fly down to the fish.  When you hook a fish, try to remember exactly what you did to get the strike.  I find myself getting in to a “zone” sometimes, meaning I do the same things over and over and continue to catch fish.  When it gets later in the day, especially toward dusk, Shad will continue to migrate upstream searching for a suitable place for mating.  I tend to catch the majority of fish during dusk and in to the evening.  I still fish the early morning and mid-afternoon part of the day, but I go in to it knowing I might not see as many fish. 


Northern California Overview:

There are several great shad spots on the Feather River between the Sacramento River and the Oroville Dam.  A consistent hot-spot, known as Shanghai Bend, is downstream of Marysville.  A few overlooked Shad rivers include the Yuba, a tributary to the Feather, which moves southwest along Route 20, and the American River.  The Nimbus Dam area on the American River provides great access.  Depending on the water levels, little islands pop up and split the Shad runs.  You have to cover more water here, but when you find the main run of Shad, you can catch fish all day long.  The Klamath River, north of the Bay Area, is big Shad water, better fished with spinners.  However, the Trinity River, a tributary of the Klamath, meanders northwest along Route 299.  It is more accessible, smaller water, and more appropriate for fly fishing.

Feather River:

Over the years, I have consistently found the most productive fly fishing for Shad to be in an area I alluded to earlier, Shanghai Bend on the Feather River.  It is not uncommon to catch 50 fish in a day.  Some anglers boast of triple digit days, which is believable because millions of Shad migrate through the river system.  Shanghai Bend is located just below the town of Marysville, California, and provides great access for wading fly fishermen.  The water here is gently sloping, with gravel and sandy bottoms, making it ideal for Shad spawning habitat.  Shad are similar to Salmon in that they return to spawn in the same water they were born in.  Shad can also return to the ocean after spawning, but some expire after mating.

Tight lines friends!

C. L. Swinney

Back to My Roots:

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My first real writing gig came while writing about something I truly love, fly fishing.  Here’s a piece I wrote a long time ago, back when I was in college.  Unless you are into the outdoors or fly fishing, this one may not suit you 🙂

Mastering Pocket Water:

Pocket water is medium to medium-fast water flowing through exposed large rocks and boulders.  As the water moves through, pockets of water form in varying sizes.   Normally these areas are located in canyons and sometimes require a bit of a hike.  Nevertheless, skipping the area is a mistake.  These pockets are full of trout.

Before getting started, gently roll rocks over in and around the boulders to see what kind of bugs scamper for shelter.  Caddis and Mayfly nymphs, usually brownish green, black, or grey, are the most abundant food source in most trout streams.  If you see twenty brown bugs and one grey bug, tie on a fly (Pheasant Tail nymph) the same size as the brown bugs under the rock.  If you see twenty brown bugs and twenty grey bugs, tie two nymphs on.  (Pheasant Tail Nymph and a Hare’s Ear Nymph.)  If you don’t see any bugs, continue to turn over rocks until you find some.  I learned a long time ago that most of the flies at the fly fishing shop were meant to catch fisherman, not fish.  If you find several different bugs, of various sizes and color, write down or commit to memory what you saw to use later if necessary.

Pheasant Tail                                                                     Hare’s Ear


Next read the water.  As the water flows to the left or right when it passes by a boulder, feeding lanes are created.  Take a few spent leaves, throw them in the water, and watch where they go naturally… this is where you want to present a fly.  Normally, bigger trout will be at or near the front of the boulders-giving them first dibs on the food coming through. Focus most of your attention where the fish live and eat as some of the water won’t hold many fish.


Begin at the head of the pocket water by presenting a fly on the side of the boulder closest to the shoreline you are standing on.  Aim the cast about two feet ahead of the lane you want to fish and immediately do a few stack mends to help get the flies down quick.  Vary the depth of the flies with split shot or weighted nymphs until you are sure the flies are working the entire water column.  Do four to five casts on each side of the boulder.  Work the “pocket water” after fishing the sides of the boulders.  Do about five presentations in this area as well.  It sounds tedious, but continue this process for every boulder.  After working the boulders closest to you, work the far bank and the slicks.  If you don’t hook up, go back to the beginning and change flies.  After you catch a fish, stick with the fly that worked until you stop catching fish.  The current will help your line downstream and move the fly for you; however, you may need to gently assist the fly as it travels through the pockets of water to make it appear more natural and to prevent snags-similar to the European nymphing technique.  The key is to watch your indicator and fly line closely- anything weird happens, set the hook.

Dry Fly:

A dry fly should be presented in a different manner than with a nymph.  In most rivers, early morning and late evening prompt most bug hatches to begin.  Start at the end of the pocket water section you are fishing and work upstream.  Concentrate on the water behind and in front of the boulders.  Work upstream because the fish are facing upstream and you will spook fewer of them approaching from behind them.  This is far more important for dry fly fishing than it is for nymph fishing.  When a fish rises to your fly and you happen to miss it, wait a few minutes before going right back after it.  If the fish felt any part of the hook on the previous rise, it might come up to look at the fly, but that’s it.  If you wait a little bit, it will usually take the fly cleanly.

Use highly visible patterns, such as Elk Hair Caddis, Humpy’s, or Stimulators, that ride high on the surface film and are easier to see in choppy white water.  If a lot of mayflies are dancing just above the water and I see fish flashing and darting beneath them, I shake out about three feet of fly line, lengthen my leader to about twelve feet, and “dance” my dry fly among the naturals.  I let my fly hit the surface of the water from time to time and the trout crush usually it.  Each and every rock should be worked over until your arm is sore or you run out of day light.

Caddis Fly                                                            Stimulator



I prefer a 9 ½ foot 5-weight rod, coupled with a disc drag reel.  I prefer a yarn indicator about the size of a nickel and a knot-less nine foot leader.  I tie on a fly, and to the bend of the hook in that fly, I tie another one on.  I use about eighteen inches of tippet for this.  About four to six inches above the first fly I add a split shot, usually “bb” size.  I’ll adjust the depth my flies travel by moving the indicator up or down or adding more weight- the goal is to ensure my flies get down quickly.  You can add weight alternatively by putting split shot below the last fly.  Tie an eighteen-inch section of tippet to the bend of the hook in the last fly.  Put a few knots on the end of the line and add the split shots just above these knots.  This way, if you feel the split shot hitting the bottom, you know your flies are pretty close to the right spot.  By doing this, you lose split-shot instead of the whole set up when you get snagged.  I use heavier tippet, say 5x or 6x, while fishing pocket water because the fish have less time to decide if the fly is real or not.  For dry flies, I like to use a nine foot leader and lots of floatant.  A high-riding fly will drift more naturally.


Prior to the spawn and just after the spawn, the majority of trout living in rivers with pocket water will congregate among the boulders and fast-moving water.  The area provides higher levels of oxygen, feeding lanes with ample food, and tremendous cover.  Mastering this water will significantly increase your ability to bring fish to the palm and is worth fishing on your way to the tail outs and riffles on your favorite river or stream.

Tight lines friends.

C.L. Swinney      🙂