With unpredictable weather fronts this time of year, fishing can be iffy. There are, however, fish to be caught this time of year that can’t be caught any other time of year. We’re talking about striped bass, hickory shad and American shad. Specifically, the American and hickory shad are in the heart of their run right now. Striped bass will be mixed with them, but their big spawning run occurs toward the end of the shad run.
These shad, along with striped bass, live in the ocean until they reach 4 or 5 years old. Then they make a spawning trek back up the river where they were hatched to start the cycle of life over again. Hickory shad are like the northern salmon and return to the ocean after they spawn. American shad for some reason become wasted after they spawn, and most of them die.
Hickory shad feed mainly on small fish and crustaceans. They readily hit small flies, small spoons and small jigs along their spawning route. American shad eat plankton almost exclusively. This makes them a prized catch for eating by some anglers. No one really knows why, but the American variety will hit the same assortment of lures as the hickory.
In rivers from Savannah to Jacksonville, Fla., these shad can be caught in decent numbers in the winter and early spring. The St. Johns River in Florida is as far south as shad are found, but every river that exits to the sea on the Georgia coast contains a population of shad.
The process for catching shad is the same in whichever river you choose. I prefer fishing the Ogeechee River, and we have success slow trolling with light tackle and small lures. Fly tackle can be used, as well, with sinking fly line. Shad, along with striped bass, tend to be bottom feeders, and the weighted line gets the fly down into the strike zone.
Local anglers on the Ogeechee keep the shad they catch, albeit not usually for the table. They freeze them whole to use for catfish bait a little later in the year. You may find yourself trolling in a line of small boats, and every boat will be catching fish.
Shad move in large schools, and they move upstream beginning in late December or January. They can travel several hundred miles before spawning, and on the Ogeechee you can catch shad well inland from the coast. They move in stages from one area up to the next, holding for a bit in a deeper hole where the current is slower. You may find fish in a section of the river one day, and that same section will be void of shad several weeks later. So you need to be flexible in your plans.
The rigs we use to catch American shad on the Ogeechee are fairly simple. As I said, I like light tackle. The locals tend to fish with line as heavy as 20-lb. test for the occasional striper that will bite. On the other hand, heavy tackle tends to defeat my purpose in fishing for shad. I like to use 4-lb. test line on an ultra-light spinning outfit. I like this because the “poor man’s tarpon” can put on a real show running and jumping.
One local angler told me he used heavier line because of all the limbs and stick-ups on the bottom. If your jig gets hung on light line, you will lose it. However, with heavier line you can just pull and the jig’s wire hook will open up and come free.
I believe it’s a trade-off. I believe I get more strikes on lighter line, but I also tend to lose jigs that hang up.
Hickory shad seldom exceed 1 pound. American shad can grow to 8 pounds or more. Try a 5-lb. shad on 4-lb. spinning tackle! The state record for hickory shad is just under 2 pounds. The state record for American shad is just more than 8 pounds.
Our baits include shad “darts,” small silver spoons and crappie jigs. These are 1/16 to 1/8 ounces each, and the colors vary. We tend to catch more on pink and white or chartreuse and white jigs, but any color can work. I think we may catch more on those colors because we fish more with them than the other colors.
I tie the jig directly to my 4-lb. line. To the hook on this jig, I tie a 12-inch length of line, and then I tie a small spoon to the line. The tandem rig seem to catch more fish, sometimes two at a time. I’ve seen a three or four hook tandem arrangement that would catch three or four fish at a time. If you choose a multiple-hook rig, make sure to use heavier line.
Sometimes we drift through an area with the current and fan cast our jigs. Cast the jig, and allow it to sink toward the bottom. Work it back slowly with a slight jerking motion to give the jig some realistic movement. When you get to the end of this particular stretch of river, crank up and run back up current, and drift it again. If the shad are there, you can catch them all day long. Remember these fish are on the move and may not be there on your next trip. So, if you plan multiple trips, make them coincide with their movement if you can.
If you take a fly rod, drifting with a No. 4 rod and sinking fly line is your best bet. Make your drift as you cast toward the bank perpendicular to the current. Then allow the line and the fly to sink toward the bottom for a few seconds. How long you wait depends on the depth of the water. Begin slowly working the fly back toward the boat, and then cast again.
Casting sinking fly line has been described as trying to cast a clothes line full of cloths. I agree that sinking line is tough to cast, and on a No. 4 rod, it’s even tougher. So I, along with some other fly anglers, will use a 20- or 30-foot length of sinking line on the end of the floating line. This makes casting easier and still lets the fly get to the bottom.
Flies for these shad are mostly two varieties. We fish with a small Clouser minnow fly or a Lefty’s Deceiver fly. Both of these are considered saltwater flies, but the smaller ones do quite well on the shad. Once again the color schemes are pinks or chartreuses. Take a number of flies with you. If you use a 4-lb. tippet and get hung up on a log on the bottom, you will likely lose the fly.
You need to know that because the fall and winter have been so wet, many rivers in Georgia are at or over the flood stage. While searching the Ogeechee for this article, another two days of heavy rains pushed the river back out of its banks again. The boat ramps we use were 4 feet underwater, making it impossible for us to launch. Even with a canoe, Gheenoe or small jonboat, the river is at best hard to navigate. The Ogeechee is one of the few remaining free-flowing rivers in Georgia. That means no type of dam is present on the river anywhere. That also means that the water exiting to the ocean during and after the flood stage will be really moving. It’s not hard on the fish, per se, but it can be dangerous for the fisherman. At flood stage and higher, water moves way back into the trees, and the river channel can be hard to find for someone unfamiliar with the river.
During February and March, we like to fish the upper reaches of the Ogeechee. We look for the deeper holes where the current slows, and we may move from hole to hole as the river allows. The areas right around the bridges that cross the river usually have a deep hole under or around them. These are also great places to fish from shore. Use the same tackle and techniques. Cast up current, and allow the jig to sink as you slowly work it back to the bank.
We usually launch our boat at the Dashers Landing boat ramp on the south and west side of the Ogeechee where it goes under Highway 80. At normal water levels, small saltwater fishing boats can be launched. Other places we launch to fish include the Steel Bridge Landing where the river goes under Highway 119.
When you plan your shad fishing trip, pay attention to the water levels, but also remember the fish are constantly moving upstream. The later we are into the year (March and April), the farther upstream the fish will be. They will move upstream until a blockage, like a very shallow shoal, prevents them from going any father. At that point they will congregate, spawn and then either die or head back downstream.
It’s interesting that the shad returning to the ocean will usually not be attracted to any of our lures. It’s also a mystery as to where the shad go in the ocean. Some have been caught by deep-water fishing trawlers at depths of 300 feet or more. But, in general not much is known and not much research has been done on the saltwater life of the shad.
Several of our country’s founding fathers, including George Washington, were involved in commercial fishing for shad. They considered the American shad to be a delicacy. For an interesting history of the shad, try the book, “Founding Fish.”
I have tried to cook some shad to eat, but honestly, they have a very heavy fish smell to me and more bones than any other fish—3,000 per fish as one source said. But, I am told that if you know how to clean them and debone them, they are quite tasty. I’ll let you be the judge.
If you are in the Savannah area and would like to try some shad, visit Charles Russo’s Seafood Market. Every year during the shad run, they filet and debone—yes, that’s right, no bones—many hundreds of pounds of shad. They sell out quickly each week, so call ahead to make sure you can get the fish. From about January through April, Charles stocks the shad. I highly recommend you give them a try.
Today, shad fisheries up and down the Atlantic coast are regulated, and the fish that are caught are usually destined for cat food or fertilizer plants. In Georgia, the commercial shad netting season runs from Jan. 1—March 31, and in the Savannah and Altamaha rivers, there are a variety of river specific regulations. Commercial fishing for shad is banned in the Satilla, Ogeechee and St. Marys rivers.
Commercial fishing interests in Georgia and other states have been hit hard with recent shad fishing closures, and the Ogeechee is one of the popular commercial fishing rivers to have been closed. Recreational fishing is still allowed, but if the overall shad population in general continues to decline, look for more restriction to sport fishing as well. However, recreational fishing is permitted in all of the rivers, with a eight fish of any size per person limit.
Always check with the Georgia DNR Coastal Resources Division for recreational and commercial rules. They do change from time to time.