A Family Past Time. An American Tradition.
American Shad, Alosa Sapidissima, are an anadromous clupeid or herring introduced into the San Francisco Bay / Sacramento River system in the 1800’s. Since being introduced to Californian waters, they have flourished, returning each year throughout the state’s waterways with numbers in the millions. The average male weighs 1-3 pounds while females are larger and commonly weigh 3-6 pounds; although the average caught Shad weighs around only 3 pounds. Shad are a shiny silver with translucent colors of blue, purple, green and black running down their backs; they are often referred to as the “poor man’s Tarpon.” If you think of a Doberman pinscher and then you think of its mini, the Shad would be the miniature Doberman pinscher of the Tarpon. Although not within the same family of fish, both fish highly resemble each other; pound for pound you’d think that a Shad fights as if it were a Tarpon. The very best part about Shad is you don’t have to travel far to get in on the action. For many, great fishing is within minutes of their home. The American River is a great place to start.
During springtime months, Shad start making their annual return into freshwater and migrate into rivers across the state to spawn. As the month’s progress into the dog days of summer, juveniles use the rivers estuarine waters for a nursery, feeding on insect larva to grow larger. Temperatures begin to decline as fall moves closer; juvenile Shad then starting moving into ocean waters to join larger schools, but will not return to freshwater until they’ve reached spawning maturity. Much like fall months, juveniles continue to roam the ocean just off shore for the next 1-3 years until becoming sexually mature around the third year and ready to return to freshwater for spawning. At 3-6 years of age, mature Shad can return and spawn in freshwater several times before dying, although spawning more than twice is highly uncommon and generally making it back for a second year is tough for some Shad to handle.
Shad mainly feed on plankton, copepods, amphipods, shrimp, mysids and on rare occasion smaller bait fish. When entering freshwater for their annual upstream migration Shad stop feeding and will not start again until the spawn is over and downstream migration begins. When in freshwater and in spawn mode, flies and jigs are presented in front of the fish causing a reaction strike. It’s kind of like when a fly is in your face and you swat at it. The reason that you are swatting at the fly is because it’s pestering you and is becoming a nuisance to whatever it is that you are doing. In many years of observations it’s not necessarily the color of the fly that is causing the reaction, but where the fly is in the water column and if it’s in line with irritated Shad. Remember, they are not here to feed, so why does matching any hatch matter? It doesn’t.
Shad prefer to hold and spawn in walking speed water with a depth of about 4-8 feet. This is not always the case, but a good general rule to start from. We also find them in the tail-outs of runs and jogging speed riffles around 5-6 feet in depth and at times at depths of up to 12 feet. Typically Shad are very temperate to air and water temperatures; generally when the air is cooler it keeps the water from warming and the fish for the most part will stay inactive. While if the air temperature becomes too hot and the water temperature rises too much, the fish then again become inactive. In observation, the best fishing occurs when the air temperature rises just enough to warm the water to about 58 degrees Fahrenheit. In the morning this occurrence usually happens between the hours of 10:00am and 1:00pm. During the hottest part of the day, when the sun is highest in the sky and has no impedance from cloud cover, the temperature of the water becomes too warm and the fish go inactive. Fishing is not at an entire loss and fish will be caught, but this is not the time of day to play the “numbers game.” For those of us who care more about being on the water than catching numbers of fish, although hot outside, this time of day can produce the most solitude fishing opportunities. As the sun lowers to the west, air temperatures cool, dropping the overall temperature of the water. This occurrence makes the fish very active and is often referred to as “magic hour.” At this point anglers are just short of popping champagne bottles; the fishing can sometimes be just that good. What is actually occurring beneath the water’s surface is large schools of male and female fish, sometimes in the thousands, joining together and actively spawning.
Over countless days and hours on the water, we have observed that Shad often hold in 2 general areas during the day: 1) Males tend to hold in shallower waters, quicker water such as riffles, on flats with an adjacent drop off. These waters range in depths of 2-4 feet and casting heavy sinking lines here can be difficult. 2) Females hold in deeper waters, buckets, holes and pools. They generally are not caught in numbers during the day because of this reason. The common mistake that 90% of anglers make is not getting your fly down to the fish. These waters range from 6-8 feet in depth. When Shad go into spawn mode, males and females convene. Generally, we see this along drop offs where a flat ends and just as it starts deepen. Shad do not use beds to spawn, they are free spawners; both male and female fish spawn within the waters current. Spawning depths can range from 4-8 feet and can occur between 1-6 feet within the water column. When anglers catch female fish they are commonly followed by several males. Females suspend within the water column and can release upwards of 300,000 eggs at a time as the males hover above the females releasing milt to fertilize eggs. Eggs are carried downstream and hatch 3-10 days later, only about 30 percent of the hatched fry will make it back into freshwater to spawn as adults. Females are recognizable because of swelling that occurs between the ventral fin and anal fin, they are also generally much larger then there male spawning counter parts.
Commonly used fly gear consists of 6-8 weight rods and a combination of shooting heads and sinking lines. RIO makes a great 250 grain streamer tip fly line to help get your flies into the strike zone quickly. Also, a cold water RIO Outbound sinking line is not a bad choice for larger rivers. Weight forward floating lines accompanied with a sinking tip is also an inexpensive way to go, using your existing floating line and adding 8-16 feet and a combination of T-8 through T-14 will get your flies where they also need to be. Switch and spey rods also make for great fishing as anglers from the bank are able to reach areas with longer casting distances and less angler fatigue through the day to evening. As guides, we generally use 3-4 feet of level 8-10 lbs. fluorocarbon, which would be equal in fly terms to 2X and 3X tippet material. The best fluorocarbon to use on the water, in small easy to access spool’s is, RIO Fluoroflex Plus. Casts are generally made out and across (aiming your casting towards opposite bank), letting the fly swing into the desired fish holding water. As explained previously, Shad are not actively feeding while in upstream migration to spawn, so there is no need to match any hatch. The best and most commonly used flies are colored in chartreuse, pink, red and white and are referred to as darts. Tying barbell eyes on a hook shank with a thread wrapped body (thread color can be any of the colors listed previously) and a marabou tail is an easy and effective way to produce several handy flies. Other popularly used Shad flies are the “wet pinky,” “bloody Maria” and the “jack frost UV.” There is no need to worry if you don’t have much in terms of flies, Shad will bite at a swung nymph such as a copper john or prince nymph; in fact we’ve caught them on dead drifted and skated size 8 -10, elk hair caddis flies. When this occurrence happens, there is nothing better… you’ve reached fly fishing enlightenment.
Phil White is the Managing Member of Fish Habit Outfitters, located within the Kiene’s American Fly Fishing Co. shop, Sacramento, California. He is a fly fishing professional and professional guide. As a California native he has logged a lifetime of hours venturing and fishing California waters and chasing anadromous fish.