Shad Migration On the Ogeechee River

The shad run up the river in March. Here’s how to catch the poor man's tarpon.

Bill Stall and his father-in-law Dan Rushing. hurriedly loaded fishing gear into two 14-foot aluminum boats. Both men are seasoned shad fishermen, and they were anxious to get into the water and get their lines wet, because the shad migration up the Ogeechee was under way. These silvery fish, known for tarpon-like jumping, are a blast to catch when they are migrating upriver in the spring.

We had met at Geechee Outdoor Supply, a meeting place east of Statesboro for fishermen and hunters on Hwy 80 in Brooklet. The store sells among many other items, a variety of tackle targeted at shad fishermen. Randy Crosby, who works there, had set up our fishing trip, gladly putting me in touch with Bill and Dan.

We put in at the boat ramp at the foot of the Hwy 80 bridge where it crosses the Ogeechee River between Statesboro and Savannah.

Bill pushed the boat out into the current, but we didn’t run anywhere. He simply slipped the trolling rig tied to his baitcaster into the water and let out 50 feet or so of line behind the boat. I followed him with a similar rig as he pointed the boat upstream.

“We’re fishing this part of the river, first of all because we have been catching fish here the past few days,” Bill said as he kicked the speed on his motor up slightly. “The other reason is that the creek has been way up and out of its banks.”

People in this area refer to the Ogeechee River as “the creek.”

“This part of the creek has some higher banks,” he continued, “so even when the water is up, we have a more confined area, and the fish are channeled into it, making it easier for us to catch them.”

In parts of the Ogeechee, the river is wide and naturally shallower. High water means flooded timber on both sides in these wide areas, and Bill does not like to fish those areas. “Too many places for the fish to go,” he says.

As we moved upstream against the current, Bill continued, “Now, let’s see if we can catch a nice fat shad.”

Shad. When most Georgia anglers hear the word shad, they think of bait; they think of bait for big catfish, hybrids and bass. But, along the coast and in upstream towns close to the major rivers, quiet, close-knit communities of fishermen wait every spring for a different kind of shad to appear. We are talking about the American and hickory shad.

American and hickory shad are primarily a saltwater fish. Each spring they complete a migration that began at their birth some five to seven years earlier. Like the venerable striped bass or rockfish, they migrate back to their birthplace to spawn. However, unlike the striped bass, most of these silvery acrobats die shortly after they spawn.

The run begins as the water temperature begins to rise. Moving inland from the ocean, they can be caught toward the mouths of rivers like the Sapelo, Altamaha, Ogeechee, and Savannah as early as the first of February. As the days of spring move into March and April, the fish move farther upstream, sometimes well over 100 miles inland from the ocean.

The shad is perhaps the most overlooked species in all of Georgia. Older generations of anglers talk about shad runs almost with a reverence. Few people realize that shad fishing for American and hickory shad dates back to our forefathers. Washington and Jefferson, among many others, were a part of a huge commercial shad fishery prior to and after the revolution.

Dan lamented that people today don’t appreciate the shad. “These youngsters don’t want to deal with the bones — they want fish sticks,” he says with a grin.  He fished commercially for these shad in earlier years, right in the Ogeechee, and was able to “sell every pound of fish I caught.”

A commercial gill-netting season still exists for netters each spring, an indication that the population is stable enough to sustain this kind of fishery.

But the part missing in all of this is the sheer pleasure of catching what a lot of experienced shad anglers call the “Poor Man’s Tarpon.” These fish can make strong runs and high leaps, and can provide an awesome battle on light tackle.

While Bill trolled with his rod, he looked curiously at mine. I was fishing with an ultralight spinning outfit and 4-lb. test line.

“Do you catch many shad on that little outfit?” he wryly asked.

I replied that I liked to fish with light tackle for shad. Four-pound test line means a longer battle and usually more jumps.

Bill was using 12-lb. test line on a short baitcasting outfit. He said he preferred the heavier line — and at that point he hung something on the bottom. Rather than turn around and retrieve his lure, he simply held onto the rod and let the boat pull his lure free.

“That’s one reason I like the heavier line,” he said. “There are a lot of limbs and trees on the bottom in this creek, and hang-ups can take a lot of your lures if you use a lighter line.”

About that time my rig hung something on the bottom, and we had to turn around to retrieve it.

“See what I mean?” Bill said as he smiled at me. “I also use the heavier line because we occasionally hook a largemouth or striper, and a 10-lb. striper will have you tied up all day on that light outfit.”

I grinned inside as I thought about that possibility!

We were trolling upstream at a land speed slower than a walk. The current was moving downstream at about a fast-walking pace. This current and trolling effect put our lines behind the boat as it slowly moved upstream.

Just under the HIghway 80 bridge, Bill hooked up, but the fish came off before we could get a look at it.

Our trolling took us under the bridge and upstream for about 100 yards. We then reeled in and headed downstream to try it again. Past the ramp and about 100 yards downstream from the bridge, we turned around and started trolling again. We never were out of sight of the launch ramp.

“We fish this area first,” said Bill, “and then we head upstream as the month moves along.”

Shad will not remain in one area for very long. Remember, they are on a mission, and that mission drives them upstream. River blockages, such as impassible rapids, bars or dams, will, however, cause the shad to stack up in one area. Even a shallow bar or rapid that can be navigated by the fish can mean a pause in their migration. This is an area that can hold good numbers of fish for several days at a time, while they determine the best route over the impasse.

Bill talked about running a boat in the Ogeechee. I had talked about bringing my bass boat, and as it turned out I certainly could have done that. The river was 12- to 15-feet deep and almost 100 yards wide. But don’t let that fool you.

“I’ve seen the river down so far in this stretch that you could almost cross it without getting wet,” Bill said as we trolled by the ramp again. “You can get a big boat in this year with no problem, but I would be careful running in the river. Lots of floating logs and debris come downstream with high water, and some of them could take a lower unit off a motor.”

He also told me about the changing sand bars. “I have seen bars appear and disappear overnight in some cases. Heavy rains, and a rising river mean that sand and silt will be shifting and moving with the current. It pays to watch where you are going and what you are doing.”

As we trolled a little farther, Bill hooked up again, this time fighting the fish to the net. Not a huge fish as American shad go, it was respectable and went into the ice chest.

I asked Bill about his terminal tackle, and whether he had any preferences. Bill’s trolling rig, as did those of the several other boats around us, consisted of a 1-oz. trolling sinker and swivel combination. To the back of the trolling sinker, Bill tied about 18 inches of line. On the end of this line he attached a pink, 1/8-oz. crappie jig with a chartreuse screw tail. For any of you bass fishermen who aren’t familiar with the coast, a screw tail is what saltwater anglers call a swimming grub. Then he tied another 18 inches of line to the hook of the jig. On the end of this line he tied a small, silver spoon, one with a No. 1 hook. The spoon had a short piece of yellow-and-red hair tied to the hook. My rig was exactly the same, but my spoon had no hair.

“These spoons and jigs come in several sizes and with different colors of hair,” he said. “Some days the fish seem to prefer one color and other days they prefer another. Early in the run, we catch the bucks, meaning the smaller males, on the spoons. As the run progresses into March and April, we tend to catch the roe fish, meaning the roe-laden females, primarily on the jigs.”

The trolling was always upstream. Every boat, sort of in a line up, would troll upstream and under the bridge, then reel in, turn around and run back under the bridge to start trolling upstream again.

Just under the bridge on one pass, I hooked a fish on my ultralight. The drag ran a bit, and I fought the fish almost to the side of the boat. At that point, we saw a silver flash and the fish was gone. It seems I had forgotten one of my own rules — the lighter the tackle, the sharper the hook. I had not sharpened the hook on the spoon I was using, and as past fishing experience has shown me, a dull hook means a missed fish. If you plan to fish with light tackle, make sure you have sharp hooks. Four-pound-test line and the necessary drag setting does not put a lot of pressure on the hook set.

We trolled past Dan in his boat, and he grinned as he held two nice shad, the larger one a roe shad, weighing about three pounds.

The day prior to our trip, Bill and Dan had caught eight shad in just a few hours, the largest of which was a roe shad that weighed four pounds. Dan kept them for supper, while Bill wanted them for catfish bait later in the spring.

“In mid-March a couple of guys can come in here and catch two limits of nice row shad in just a couple of hours,” said Bill.

The limit is eight fish per person, and those row shad can be big. The state record is 8-lbs., 3-ozs., and fish in the 6-lb. range are not uncommon in March.

These fish are moving right now. They will be moving and peaking in mid to late March on the Ogeechee, and they can be caught by almost anyone. Because there is nothing that will stop and congregate the fish, you will be catching moving fish. Move with them as the month progresses.

In early March, plan to put in and fish the Ogeechee right around the HIghway 80 bridge where it crosses the river. As the days pass in March and into April, make plans to launch farther upstream — meaning follow the fish!
Moving upstream, launch ramps can be found at SR 199 close to Ivanhoe, at SR 24 close to Oliver, at US 301 close to Copperville, and just south of Rocky Ford. Each of these launch ramps provide an opportunity to move with the fish as they migrate upstream. While shad can be caught at all of these locations during March and April, the concentration of fish will generally be on the move upstream. They may be heavy at one location for a week or more and then the school will move upriver.

Because the migration speed is difficult to predict, it is important to check with a knowledgeable source before heading out. Randy Crosby at Geechee Outdoor Supply in Brooklet is one of those sources. Call him at (912) 842-2555 to find out where fish are being caught and what specific lures are the most successful.

If I were making a trip for Ogeechee shad in March, which I most definitely am, I would add a few lures and tactics to the excellent ones that Bill and Dan provided me. I would include some shad darts in the mix. These small feather- or hair-bodied jigs come in sizes that range from 1/4-oz. down to 1/32-oz. The flat and cone shape of the head on these jigs makes them move and dart (hence the name) when jerked through the water. These darts would be an awesome addition to any tackle used on the Ogeechee.

I would also try drifting with the current, working a jig or dart vertically under the boat as an alternative to trolling. Dan said the trash on the bottom would cause too many hang-ups, but I believe it would be a worth trying.

As a last suggestion, I would bring a fly rod. A No. 4 or smaller rod with weighted line and a sinking fly like a small silver clouser or deceiver should work. Cast upstream at a 45-degree angle to the current. Mend the line and allow the fly to sink until it is directly broadside to the boat. At that point, begin a short, fast, line strip and retrieve the fly. If the fish are there in any numbers, they will hit that fly.

One thing to remember on any method you use is that these fish are generally deep in the water column. Whether using a jig, spoon, dart or fly, getting it down deep into the water column is important.

Lastly, remember that while the shad are migrating, they are just ahead of the striped bass. Be aware that you could be tangling with an early striper at any of the places that Bill mentioned.

Bill Stall and Dan Rushing, two of the better shad fishermen on the Ogeechee, made a great day of fishing for a fish that I believe is one of the most under-rated and under-fished species on the coast. You can find these two anglers on the river sometimes four or five times a week during the spring. You can’t miss them —  they’re the ones catching fish!

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