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Poor Man's Tarpon
written by Ron Brooks

From February through May and June you can find this thrill all along the eastern seaboard!
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You get all the powerful runs and spectacular leaps of a tarpon, but on a much smaller budget!

Up and down the entire Atlantic Coast line, shad anglers prepare each spring for their one month of fishing. That's about how long the shad run lasts on any river, and it can be one of the most hectic, yet productive fishing times of the year.

 

American and hickory shad make their annual spawning migration upstream in coastal rivers from Florida to Maine each spring. Acting much like Pacific salmon, these fish are spawned in the freshwater rivers, and live there for about two years.  Then they migrate out to the ocean and live in the Atlantic for up to five years before returning to their birth place to spawn another generation. Like the salmon, they die shortly after the spawn.

 

The run starts along the south Atlantic and moves up the coast. Fish can be found in the St. Johns and St. Marys rivers in Florida as early as January.  As spring approaches the water warms, the runs start in rivers farther north. Anglers in New England catch shad all the way through June in some years.

 

Shad fishing goes all the way back to American Revolutionary times, with many of our colonial ancestors making a living in the commercial shad trade each year. Hard to clean, but great eating, their Latin scientific name actually translates to "most savory."

 

It is interesting that certain rivers will be home to mostly American shad and some rivers to mostly hickory shad. But, either way, these hard-fighting, jumping fish are an angler's dream on light tackle and fly.

 

The rigs and baits are almost the same in every river. Shad darts from one-sixteenth to one-quarter ounce in size, and very small spoons are the spinning tackle lures.  Green, pink, yellow, white, and many combinations of these colors will work. Small spoons either fished alone or in tandem with a shad dart also work well. For the fly angler, weighted line and a sinking fly like a very small Clouser or Deceiver will work. Silver and white seem to produce better than other colors.

 

On most rivers, there are parts of the river that historically find the shad schooling together. As an example, in the St Johns River in Florida, it's in the area of Deland and Sanford. In North Carolina, it's at Weldon on the Roanoke and at various places on the Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear rivers. Weldon is known far and wide for its shad and striper fishery each spring.

 

I can tell you that a four pound shad on 4-pound test spinning gear is a long fight with multiple jumps and several long runs. 

In whatever river you fish, shad will be making their way upstream. Some rivers have no manmade or natural blockage, such as a dam or steep rapids, and the fish will move a hundred miles or more upstream. On rivers with dams or impassible rapids, the fish will concentrate in a pool and await nature's call to spawn. It's in these pools that catching 100 fish before noon is not only possible, it is probable on the right day.

 

State DNR officials in some states track the migration of the shad and report their progress through the spawn. That helps anglers plan an awesome trip.

 

Fishing for shad with spinning gear involves simply casting either upstream or across the current and allowing your lure to sink. Most strikes will occur as the lure sinks, or after the first twitch of your rod tip. The fish are deep in the water column, and the current will dictate the size of your lure. Heavy current means a heavier jig.

 

Averaging one to three pounds, some of these shad grow even larger.  I can tell you that a four pound shad on four pound test spinning gear is a long fight with multiple jumps and several long runs. On No. 2 fly tackle it is even better! Cast upstream or across the current and mend as your fly sinks. Watch your line as it sinks to detect a strike. When the fly is down, close to the bottom, start stripping line and retrieving it to the boat.

 

Some tackle shops in the area of rivers that contain shad will specialize in shad fishing gear. There are even shad guides in some locations, although there is no real need for them (sorry guys!). Simply get to where the shad are and get a lure in the water. The fish generally take care of the rest.

 

If you plan a trip to find some shad, make sure you call ahead. Look up a tackle shop close to a tidal river and call them. They will probably not only know where the shad are at the current time, they will help you get outfitted to catch them.

 

Poor man's tarpon. I think the name says it all. You get all the powerful runs and spectacular leaps of a tarpon, but on a much smaller budget! And, from February through May and June you can find this thrill all along the eastern seaboard. Give it a try!

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