Then she'll use the bend in that rod and a push of her strong tail to catapult herself fully clear of the surface, shaking violently, trying to dislodge your hook. If you've still got her, she will keep jumping and fighting right to the boat, where her small, soft mouth and the fine wire hooks may hasten her escape.
A dip net would prevent many of the boat-side, "speed" releases, but what the heck, most of them get thrown back anyway.
The shad-fishing ritual, a spring coming-out party, so to speak, finds fishermen anchored or standing in tidal rivers that support spawning runs, flinging shad darts or small flies, hankering to feel the solid tug of an aggressive ocean fish once more.
As spring warms the air, American or "Atlantic" shad begin their annual spawning journey into the upstream reaches of tidal rivers up and down the east coast. Famous shad rivers in colonial times were the Delaware, Connecticut, Merrimack and Maine's Kennebec, but shad also ran strongly up South Carolina rivers - and still do.
Similar to their cousin, the Atlantic salmon, shad do not feed during the trip because they have loving on their minds. They begin moving upriver in January and February until they find their imprinted birth spot or bump into a dam, in which case they wait around for a kind-hearted biologist masquerading as an elevator operator to open a lift or lock so they can swim further on.
It's a popular impression that shad die after their spawning run, like many of the Pacific salmon, but this is only true because our waters warm so quickly. Many shad spawning in northern rivers and some southern fish do return to the sea after spawning, then return to spawn again.
Beautifully slim, dressed in tones of silver and pink and with small, delicate mouths, these fish do not look like pugnacious aggressors but, although food is not their desire, for some reason they will grab small flies and leadhead shad darts with abandon. Beginning with the smaller males that arrive first and continuing with egg-laden females ranging over four pounds, these slab-sided fighters provide great early season action when we intercept them, play tug-of-war for a while and cheer their gills-flared leaps, then release them to continue their journey.
Bill Nettles of Beaufort, a native of Sumter County, invites two old friends from Pennsylvania, Emil Kattermann and his son, John, to join him every year for a shad-fishing outing below the Tail Race Dam near Moncks Corner. Emil Katterman comes from a long line of freshwater fly fishermen; years ago, he invited Nettles to fish at the famous Beaverkill Trout Club in Livingston Manor, N.Y., where one night, the discussion drifted to shad fishing on the Delaware River, an activity neither had tried. They soon tried it, and although Nettles caught a shad on their first outing, it was seven years before Katterman caught his first shad on a fly. They didn't catch many shad in the Delaware, but they did catch the bug.
Nettles didn't sample South Carolina's shad fishing until 1991, when he and Jim Dyson hauled a boat to Moncks Corner, bought three shad darts at a local store and caught a pile of shad until they lost their darts, launching a new tradition.
From Beaufort, the trip to the dam takes about two hours, and though there doesn't seem to be any best time to fish the tailrace, he tries to get there in the early morning, pulling of US 17 just north of Moncks Corner and putting in at the public boat landing there. Nettles' boat comfortably carries the anglers the short hop north under the railroad crossing to within sight of the dam.
Nettles selected a good-looking spot close to the bank on the north side of the river and attached a bow line to a streamside bush. After drifting a few yards downcurrent, he dropped a stern anchor on the downstream side so that the boat remained near a current line he hoped would hold fish. Like many regulars to the Tail Race, he looks for a spot near a current line and near the shore. Water releases from the dam will affect the holding spots for shad, but releases are not predictable. The dam is required to maintain an average flow down the Cooper River to keep saltwater intrusion under control, so releases are scheduled, but not necessarily at the same time each day. The two hours after a water release ends is often very productive.
After rigging light spinning gear with shad darts, the fishermen flipped their offerings into the flow and began working them near the bottom, trying to make occasional bottom contact. Darts come in myriad colors that probably all work, but Nettles' crowd likes chartreuse or yellow combinations.
It wasn't long before one of the rods doubled over with a strike from a strong fish. After a short tussle, interspersed with a few nice aerials, the 4-pound shad came boatside and was scooped up in a long-handled net. After high fives all around, the roe shad was slid back into the water, not too much worse for wear.
After the first fish broke the ice, the action was brisk and steady, with everyone landing fish and the day's catch totaling about 20, with only a few roe shad. It's hard to tell for sure which are males and which are females, even though the males are generally smaller. The sure way is to squeeze their bellies and see if eggs or sperm pop out. Nettles and Kattermanns keep only a few of their catch since they're not crazy about either the roe or the bony meat.
Using spinning tackle or a fly rod for shad is not very complicated, most-often involving a deep, slow presentation with simple attractor lures and flies. Since long casts are not required and some luck is involved, everyone can catch a shad. Nonetheless, some anglers catch more, fighting fish after fish, while others hook only an occasional straggler. A light spinning rod or a 6-weight fly rod, rigged with a full sinking line or a 200-grain shooting head, is a good choice in most cases.
Shad drift into eddies, holding at various depths and positions depending on the dynamics of the water flow. Water flowing by solid surfaces like banks or bottom structure always goes slower than neighboring water. Combine this with the effect of an eddy, and it's predictable where resting shad will most likely congregate - near a seam and close to the bottom. Finding underwater seams, where the flow is just right for the fish and positioning the boat correctly is often as important to success as lure presentation. A combination of boat position, fishing depth, retrieve speed and lure selection all contribute to catching fish.
The best presentation begins with a cast across the current that allows the fly or dart to sink as the line moves downstream with the current and straightens out. Once the line is completely straight, keep a bend in the rod and make a very slow retrieve all the way back to the boat. Since most of the fish normally hold deep in the water column, make sure the lure brushes the bottom occasionally. A good technique to insure this happens is to retrieve about half of your line and then allow it to feed back out into the current. That action will drop the lure or fly to the bottom at a different spot than the initial swing, and you can again retrieve it slowly.
When a fish strikes, you have probably found a seam and maybe a concentration of fish. We all get excited while playing and landing a fish, but try to remember where the line was and what it was doing when the fish hit in order to duplicate it on the next cast.
Shad have very soft mouths and do not require an aggressive hookset. Merely lifting the rod usually works fine. Once the fish is hooked, a smooth drag system is a big advantage for absorbing strong runs and jumps. Shad jump often, and a few are lost in the process. Exaggerated bowing of the rod is not necessary, but when a fish is in the air is not the time to apply extra pressure.
Bill Post, a biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, said shad move into most of South Carolina's coastal rivers every spring. The Waccamaw, Santee, Cooper, ACE Basin and Savannah rivers all experience shad runs. The most-popular places to fish recreationally for shad are the tailrace waters of the Cooper River at the Pinopolis Dam, which is a boat-fishing venue, the Rediversion Canal down from the St. Stephens Fish Lift and Dam near St. Stephens, which has both boat- and bank-fishing possibilities.
Post said that the Wilson Dam on the Santee River, which is also a boat- or bank-fishing venue, is a good bet in dry years when there is not active water flow through the Rediversion Canal to attract the migrating shad. Shad tend to swim upstream into the strongest flow available. On the Savannah River, shad action that peaks a couple of weeks later in the season is available at the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam. This boat- and bank-fishing area usually peaks in April. The daily creel limit is 10, except in the Santee River and the Rediversion Canal, where it is 20.
Shad pull hard and jump high, and anyone can catch one if they fish in the right places. Doesn't that sound like the description of a perfect game fish? No wonder those familiar with shad celebrate their spring return.