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.
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.
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.
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