Intro To NorCal Shad Angling
from a late '70s document in the PFF archive

by Dave Draheim

republished November 2003

The American Shad Alosa sapidissima

The American Shad is an anadromous fish, which is to say, like the salmon, comes from the ocean to ascend costal rivers to spawn. After spawning, many of the fish return to the sea. The newly hatched fry remain in the river for a time, then migrate to the sea, where they spend from two to five years before returning to the river. Shad feed almost entirely on plankton. Their weight ranges from one-and-a-half to six pounds, with the maximum being eight pounds. It's a very handsome fish, with bright silver sides that flash iridiscent blue and green.

Experts are in general agreement that the shad is a worthy opponent and is one of the finest fighting fish available. The shad will run, take to the air, and bulldog back and forth. It has often been referred to as the poor man's steelhead or tarpon.

Where And When To Fish

Just a few hours' drive from the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Area will put you in prime shad fishing water. If you live in the Sacramento area, you are blessed, because it's possible for you to be shad fishing within minutes of your home.

The main runs of shad are found in the Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, and American Rivers, while lesser runs can be found in the Mokelumne, San Joaquin, Russian, Eel, and Trinity Rivers.

Of all the rivers, the Sacramento provides the best angling opportunities because it is fishable from the capitol city all the way to the Red Bluff Diversion Dam. To locate the access roads and boating ramps, it is suggested that you obtain either a county map or a local recreational map of the river of your choice.

The American Shad makes its spawning run from mid-April right through July. This, of course, is the time to fish. The weather ranges from cool to blazing hot.

Angling Techniques

The shad fisherman is either a wader or a boat fisherman. A wading fisher will be generally on a gravel bottom in a nice quiet eddyline with very little movement. When the temperature soars, many fishermen shed their waders, and are comfortable fishing in shorts and tennis shoes. Felt-soled waders or shoes are recommended, but aren't absolutely necessary.

The car-top boat is the most popular among boat fishermen. It should be well-equipped with one or more large anchors, a motor powerful enough to battle the main current of the river chosen, and life preservers. Good boating skills are called for, especially on the Sacramento and Feather, as these two rivers can be very unforgiving at certain times and places. You can either fish from the boat or use it for transportation to reach wadable spots that are not otherwise accessable.

Locating fish is the main key to success. Early in the season you are more apt to find fish moving upriver in schools and holding in certain areas for short periods only. Later, you will be looking for holding water near spawning areas downstream from dams, which signify the end of migration for the shad. Popular holding water is often in the eddyline on the inner side of a bend in the river, or a depression in the stream bottom. Shad are seldom taken on bait, but will readily take a fly or lure.

It is also important to locate the depth that the fish are using. They will be found near the bottom, but there are times when they will be in midwater or just below the surface.

Fly Fishing Tackle

The tackle of choice is usually that which is employed in steelhead fishing. This means rods eight-and-a-half to nine feet in length. Lines should range from eight- to nine-weight. Shooting heads of various sinking densities are recommended.

Leaders should be kept fairly short. Seven-and-a-half feet is the generally accepted maximum. They should test at either six or eight pounds. A smooth, well-lubicated reel with plenty of backing completes your outfit. Flies are either weighted or unweighted, with those employing bead chain eyes being the most popular. The great favorite has a silver mylar body, a collar of red chenille or wool, white hackle, and bead chain eyes. Flies are from size two through eight, with six being used the most. Yellow hackle/silver body, yellow hackle/orange body, and even green body also have their followers. The cast is made directly across to three-quarters downstream and most fish are picked up on the swing.

How To Land A Shad

A shad's mouth is very delicate, with very thin sides. Many fish are not landed. Most of those that are landed will be found to be hooked firmly in the lower or upper jaw.

If it is your intent to release the fish, try to unhook your fish by running your fingers down your leader and grasping the fly or lure, then shaking the fish loose. If you have a strong and active fish (most are), use a minimum amount of handling and twist the hook free. When a net is used, the shad will struggle and lose most of its scales. When this happens, its chances of survival are drastically reduced.

What To Do With The Catch

Shad, if cooked properly and if served correctly, can be a treat. Those are big ifs, though, as the shad is a very bony fish. Many find their way to a smoker. The roe found in females is an Old San Francisco gourmet treat. A listing of recipies is beyond the scope of this introduction. It is sincerely hoped that you will release most of your catch, and keep only those which you will truly use for food.

Interesting Reading

"Founding Fish" by John A. McPhee.

How-To Books

"Shad Fishing: A Complete Guide Species, Gear, and Tactics" by C. Boyd Pfeiffer
"Experience the World of Shad Fishing" by Lenox Dick

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