Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Chasing the Shad Run in Maryland

Delaware Indians setting shad traps and smoking operations
Every spring, since at least the end of the last Ice Age, three species of shad have migrated up the Chesapeake Bay to spawn in highly oxygenated freshwater streams.  Native Americans knew this, and relied on the shad for much-needed spring protein (in the case of American and Hickory shad) and also for fertilizing crops like tobacco and corn (in the case of the much fishier Gizzard shad).  These fish tend to school anytime they reach an upstream obstacle, waiting for the right time or flow to continue moving upstream. 

Of course, all of that changed when the French, Dutch, and English started erecting mill dams across coastal plain streams from North Carolina to New Jersey in the mid-1700s (although it's true that beaver dams existed on most or all of those streams at various times prior to colonial settlement).  These mill dams prevented shad (and herring, striped bass, and many other species) from moving upstream to the spawning grounds, which in turn, made the corralled and confused shad very easy prey to fishermen.  Humans' interest in harvesting these fish en masse has not subsided.  In several states in the Northeast, the season on American and Hickory shad remains closed due to centuries of overfishing.   However, a very particular and unusual culture still exists every April and May on those Chesapeake Bay streams - catch and release fishing for Americans and Hickories.   How weird is that culture? Check out the tackle:

You have to admit, those are some pretty weird little plugs.  They're called shad darts.  While shad can and do bite other lures (and live bait), they certainly chase these little things around. 

One friday morning found me on Maryland's eastern shore, and I decided to see if the shad were hanging around one of the Wye River's fish passage blockage, which is the historic Wye Mill Dam (which impounds the current Wye Mills Lake).  I had heard that shad were around, but with all of this crazy weather, it's just hard to know.

I have to admit, I have not fished the shad run in three years now, and I have forgotten what I had taught myself about these tough fish.  I started off with a few crappie lures that were getting big strikes but no hookups. I then switched to a 4" Rapala Subwalk "Ghost" with a trailing streamer and the hits came fast and furious.  The shad - big shad (a dead 18"er was on the bank) - were rising through the stained water, grabbing the lure, and heading deep.  Then they would run the bottom of the channel while still holding onto the lure.   Then, every time, I'd decide that I'd had enough, turn off the drag, and start retrieving, at which point the shad would bounce the lure.  I hooked a few dozen and never brought one to the surface - very frustrating.  Other lures didn't provoke the same strike. Smaller lures only caught me bucketfuls of panfish (and once again, I did not have a creel or cooler with me).   Frustrated, I eventually gave up and headed for the fish passage barrier where I learned how to fish for shad on Maryland's Choptank River.

At first glance, it appeared fairly promising.  There was a lot of water coming over the old mill dam, and even more through the fish passage notch that was cut by DNR contractors about five years ago.  It seemed a little brown, but more critically, another light tackle angler was already set up on the old dam and casting just downstream into the plunge pool, where the shad were waiting.  He caught a few, but it wasn't at all reminescent of some of the classic days I've had fishing there (pulling out fish after fish after fish).

But it just was not to be.  Neither the upstream fisherman's luck, nor the tales of striped bass lurking in the pools below were able to get any shad in my hands on this day.  The Choptank was ridiculously stained, once I saw it up close.  No lure could deal with the discoloration and the speed of the river (nearing flood stage).  Oh well.

When you get a few hours of unobligated time to fish, it's hard to say, "Maybe another day."   The shad run is now ending throughout the upper Chesapeake Bay and I'm pretty sure I won't get another chance to target them this year.  I'm at least pleased that I got some really big ones on the line, and I'll be prepared to try some new spots in April 2012!


Passinthru Outdoors said...

way to get out there and give them heck. I haven't been shad fishing yet this year but my pals have caught a few. We don't fish with anything but willow leafs now days.

Thanks for sharing.
Passinthru Outdoors Blog - Sharing the Passion

Kirk Mantay said...

Ha! Do you mean those gold weightless spoons I use? Are they called willow leaves? Sorry to be ignorant.

I started using those heavily for bass and panfish last year - in any conditions where there wasn't a lot of vegetation or algae in the water.

Anonymous said...

Never had an opportunity to fish for Shad, Sure enjoyed reading your post here. Sounds like it would be a lot of fun and something I would enjoy if it weren't so far from home. Thanks for sharing.

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