Before moving to the east coast, I had never heard of shad. Four years later, I have become well acquainted with this herring like fish affectionately dubbed ‘the poor man’s salmon.’
Any half respectable fisherman in the DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) area will tell you with wide eyes about shad season. It is a saving grace for those beaten down by winter. It is a promise of spring and new life. It is a reason to go outside. Perhaps most of all, shad season is a chance to catch an obscene amount of fish.
Winter limits my fishing options to where I often find myself driving further and further out of the city in search of fish. However, everything changes with the arrival of spring and the annual shad run. Not only do my fishing options increase, but the fish come to me. In fact, I don’t even need to drive anywhere. Eight miles on my bike and I am in the middle of the action.
The Potomac River at Fletchers Cove, just above Georgetown, is as good a place as any to catch shad. Rent a wooden rowboat from Fletcher’s Boathouse, paddle out, drop anchor, and start casting. This is no secret and there is often a wait list for the limited amount of boats.
Fly selection is not of great importance. I use short Clouser minnows of various colors because they are cheap and easy to tie. The biggest factor determining success is depth and location of the fly. The fish stack up in certain places and a sinking line is needed to reach them. More than once, fishermen in other boats have called out inquiring about my fly choice and I tell them, “It is a #6 white Clouser, but the fly is not that important. You just need to paddle around and keep casting until you find a school of fish.” Once you find a school, there is a good possibility for constant hook ups upwards of 50 fish.
Although fishermen have caught high numbers of shad in recent years, the population of both American and hickory shad is still at a fragile level compared to past numbers. The sad and redundant theme of human caused decline through over fishing, pollution, and river obstruction once again rears its ugly head. Efforts are currently being made to increase the fish populations and return significance to this historic species. In addition to large scale stocking, a moratorium on American shad has been in effect since 1982 and all hickory shad also must be returned to the water.
I remain optimistic for the future of these fish. Still, the tales of old serve as a painful reminder of what could have been; prolific runs of fish beyond imagination. In the early 1600s, famous explorer John Smith noted that the fish were “...lying so thicke with their heads above water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with frying pans.” As for the now, I will stick with my fly rod and enjoy any fish I am fortunate enough to catch.
See you on the river this spring.