On the eve of spring, an awesome fishery erupts this month in the Cooper River tailrace downstream from 60,000-acre Lake Moultrie. By the thousands, American shad will move from the ocean through Charleston Harbor and into the river, then upstream 35 miles to spawn at the base of the coal-fired power station known as Santee Cooper’s Jefferies Generating Station.
As soon as the fish arrive, they stack up in the last mile of the river below the dam, and anglers with ultralight gear can have some of the most-exciting, steady action of the year for as long as fishing line can withstand the beating.
American shad are one of seven anadromous fishes that ventures out of their saltwater comfort zone and into South Carolina’s freshwater rivers each year during the late winter to early spring. As soon as they move into the river systems, they appear on the radar of commercial and recreational anglers, but it’s not until they encounter the major break in stream flow that is Lake Moultrie Dam that they become a real target for anglers. That section of the river becomes a war zone for anglers, not to mention the hundreds of pelicans trying to get a fish dinner.
It’s spawning time for these fish, and while it may only last four to six weeks, the fishing can be sizzling hot, but timing the arrival of these massive schools of shad is directly related to the weather.
Chris Orvin of Overdose Fishing Charters puts shad on his radar shortly after duck season ends.
“They will usually show up in February if we have normal weather, but if January and February are real cold, the fish will show up a little later into March,” said Orvin (843-509-2306). “Water temperature is the biggest measure to determine when these fish show up for us.”
Generally, American shad venture into freshwater as soon as the water temperature reaches 55 degrees, and they will begin spawning in the tailrace at 58 degrees. American shad typically spawn from sundown to midnight, but the fishing starts as soon as the fish make it to their spawning grounds.
Shad prefer to spawn in places with rocky bottoms and good stream flow, which makes the Cooper River tailrace a perfect place to deposit their 500,000 eggs and even a better place for anglers to wet a line.
No doubt, the best water is found in the first stretch below the spillways, and the sanctuary line that is very evident from the boats that raft up here in March.
However, Orvin will fall back away from the first group of boats and still have little problems reaching triple digits catches in a short time.
“I look for places between the dam and the railroad trestle that have rock piles extending into the deep water. They stack up behind those rock ledges where the current is broken,” said Orvin.
Both sides of the river will have deep water with plenty of rock ledges available to divert the flow. Orvin prefers the north side because it has the most current breaks.
Catching shad is like child’s play if the right lures are used. However, mimicking their typical diet of plankton, small shrimp and fish eggs is not really an option and is not the best way to catch them. Since they are spewing millions of eggs into the water, predation from small fish is a major concern for the adult shad, and that makes small colorful jigs and minnow imitations super effective and deadly.
Orvin spools up with 3- to 6-pound braided line and ties it to a 1/8-ounce hot pink or chartreuse jighead paired with a 1- to 2-inch hot pink or silver flake/chartreuse grub.
“(You) need to use something bright that stands out. You can use other, more natural-colored lures, but they will not hit anything that is not bright and flashy,” Orvin said.
Getting the fish to bite is the next step. Anglers need to finesse the lure through the current and within reach of suspended fish. Orvin will cast diagonally into the current and make a slow, steady retrieve after he allows the lure to sink sufficiently into the slower current behind the submerged rocks.
“The current will do most of the work for you. Reel in just enough to keep a tight line and work the lure slowly back to you. They will crush it,” says Orvin.
The early spring shad run will not last forever, but while the fish are there, the fishing can be incredible and nonstop action for hours on end. Look for the best action from the last week of February through the end of March.
HOW TO GET THERE — The Cooper River tailrace is easy to access from a public boat landing on Carswell Road in Monks Corner, under the US 52/US 17A bridge. From the north, turn east on CR 402 and merge right at the yield sign, then take a right on Carswell Road. From the south side, Hidden Cove Marina on Reid Hill Road is a great access point. The best area is the mile of river from the railroad trestle upstream to the spillway. Fish the channel edges on either side of the river, looking for current seams and submerged rock piles.
WHEN TO GO — The American shad run begins in February and will continue through April, but the best action is normally the first two weeks of March, when the water temperature is around 58 degrees. South Carolina’s daily creel limit on shad is 10 fish per angler, with no minimum size limit.
BEST TECHNIQUES — Crappie jigs from 1/16- to 1/8-ounce paired with small curlytail or shadtail grubs 2 inches or shorter are ideal for shad. Bright, fluorescent colors are also best. Small silver and bronze flutter-type spoons will also do the trick Fish the lures deep in the water column and slowly. Use ultralight spinning gear spooled with braided line. Adult American shad can range from 3 to 5 pounds, so an abrasive-resistant line is needed. Reels should have a strong drag system. The state-record fish, caught in 1985, weighed 7 pounds.
FISHING INFO/GUIDES — Chris Orvin, Overdose Fishing Charters, 843-509-2306, www.overdosefishingcharters.net; Rob Bennett, Lowcountry Inshore Charters, 843-367-3777; Anglers Sporting Goods, Moncks Corner, 843-761-1171. Atlantic Game & Tackle, Mount Pleasant, 843-881-6900. See also Guides and Charters in Classifieds.