River-run shad are harbingers of great North Carolina spring fishing

Cashie shad anglers at Windsor (left to right) Christopher “Pete” Johnson, 9, Joseph Eure, 11, and Andy Eure display their catches.

People in eastern N.C. don’t look for robins to signal the arrival of spring; they wait for the shad run to begin.

Some people claim robins are the harbingers of spring. Others say it’s crocuses or daffodils. William Wordsworth, the poet, immortalized spring’s fore-runner as a lone snowdrop.They’re all wrong.

For Tar Heel sportsmen, spring’s messenger is a small, oily fish that fights like a caged tiger and isn’t particularly good to eat. But this fish produces memories and smiles of what’s coming — the surge of a torpedo-shaped king mackerel, the bulldog pull of a largemouth bass, the wrist-snapping jerk of a big crappie, the leap of a rainbow-colored dolphin next to a line of red sargassum.

And it is good.

In North Carolina these small tarpon-like fishes flood into coastal streams from unknown places in the Atlantic, moving west through the workings of internalized, unerring compasses toward their birth waters.

And after a long dark winter, their arrival saves sportsmen, their sanity, even marriages.

“The shad are here,” is the cry that begins in eastern N.C. during late February and peaks the first two weeks of March. By this time, the winter’s deer, rabbit and squirrel seasons are dim memories and spring gobbler season won’t arrive for another month. So there’s a gap to be filled.

Winter usually has loosened its grip by March. The days are lengthening — and warming —as the earth’s angle tilts just enough that the sun’s rays hit the northern hemisphere at a more direct angle. Early spring beckons cabin-feverish sportsmen outside.

What to do? That’s easy.

The shad — hickories and Americans by the millions — spill into eastern N.C. rivers (the Roanoke, Tar, Neuse and Cape Fear) and their tributaries, small streams with picturesque names such as Pitchkettle, Contentnea and Cashie.

Windsor is a typical, slow-paced eastern N.C. town, just north of Williamston on U.S. 17. The Cashie (pronounced Cash-Eye) River, flows northwest to southeast through the center of town, eventually merging into Albemarle Sound at Bachelor Bay, a few miles north of the mighty Roanoke’s mouth.

American and hickory shad have spawned in both streams for countless eons, heading each spring for obscure backwaters where they complete their mating rituals, lay eggs, then return to the sea.

Anglers at Windsor catch ’em coming and going.

With the concrete U.S. 17 bridge spanning the Cashie and a launch ramp for boating anglers a few hundred feet away, Windsor is the first place of any size on the river where people congregate to catch shad each spring.

Boats can be used but aren’t really necessary unless you want to get away from the crowd or try to find hotter upriver holes.

The Cashie’s shore at Windsor is bulwarked by wood and concrete, and bank fishers have worn paths in the grass behind businesses that face the highway. Some anglers fish from the north side where someone long ago built a rickety pier that parallels the stream.

Fish ain’t biting on the south side? Walk across the bridge to the pier and fish from the north side.

Three Piedmont-area visitors, Gary Hicks, Ronnie Wilson and an outdoors writer, wanted to try eastern-style shad fishing last March, starting at Windsor then working our way west.

When we arrived, the southern shoreline of the Cashie was dotted with local anglers, mostly men and boys. A few boats, floating under a blue sky filled with puffy clouds sent skittering by a brisk wind, worked the river upstream of the bridge.

Everyone seemed to be landing shad.

The targets are “roe” or female shad. Locals call shad “roe” because the females are most valued for their eggs (roe), the caviar of eastern N.C. Battered and fried roe is considered a delicacy. A roe-and-eggs shoreline breakfast is considered a treat in many quarters.

In fact, a famed restaurant, the Cypress Grill at Jamesville, sits hard beside the Roanoke River a few miles south and is open seasonally during the shad and herring runs to cater to roe or herring fans. However, with new regulations imposed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission this year (the agency has closed inland waters to herring harvests, commercial and recreational), herring may not be on the Grill’s menu.

Now the “shad” that anglers mostly catch are not the “herring” that are the object of so much concern. Hickory shad are the smallest variety of herring, running a pound on average (a 3-pounder is a trophy). However, American, or “white” shad, are the big boys. They commonly reach 5 pounds and a few 8-pounders are landed each year.

Caught with ultra-light tackle, Americans ((alosa sapidissima) and hickories (pomolobus mediocris) are excellent fighters, often leaping into the air, resembling mini-tarpons (the way to differentiate a hickory from a white shad of the same size is the underjaw; the hickory’s lower jaw juts out past the upper jaw, resembling, yes, a tarpon).

American shad, hit hard by overharvests and a large commercial fishery, are making a comeback with help from the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. In 2004 and 2005 the WRC reared and released 2 million American shad fry into the Roanoke River.

Most biologist say blueback herring and alewives won’t hit lures presented by hook-and-line anglers. Locals at Windsor dispute that belief, but more about that later.

State management policy for herring — alewives and bluebacks — has become a bone of contention between anglers, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission. There’s no doubt herring numbers are so low they’re dangerously close to being unable to reproduce themselves in sufficient numbers to ensure survival. Biologists from the WRC and the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries agree upon that fact. Yet the MFC’s politically-appointed commissioners refuse to curtail commercial netting of these fish. On the other hand, the MFC has set a ban on herring catches in inland waters (streams and rivers) for the 2006 season.

Billy Ray, 72 and a Windsor native, has seen good times and bad for shad and herring. In fact, he believes growing numbers of shad may be one reason herring numbers have declined — along with foreign-based ocean netters and even hurricanes.

“I’ve been fishing down here for a lot of years, and it seems like the shad have made the herring situation worse,” he said.

Ray said he’s watched shad, Americans and hickories, “run into the herring. They’d run up against ’em and bump ’em hard. It’s almost like they’re bullying them out of the way.

“And, before the shad got so plentiful in this river, you could catch herring. The herring would bite tiny grubs on a rig with six or eight hooks. Sometimes they’d even bite small silver spoons.

“In fact, in the old days, if we caught a shad while we were herring fishing, we’d throw the shad in the swamp. We didn’t consider shad fittin’ for anything.”

Ray said he believes foreign fishing fleets, netting fish before they can reach inshore spawning streams, also decimated herring.

“The Russians and Japanese came in with fish-finders,” he said. “They’d find the schools (of herring) in the ocean and run nets around ’em. They had canning boats out there where they’d offload their catches.”

But he didn’t exonerate N.C. netters.

“And 3-inch mesh gill nets, here, in the Roanoke River and Albemarle Sound, hurt the herring,” he said. “The problem is they catch mostly females. See, that size net lets the males through, but not the females. When I was netting, I used 2 1/2-inch mesh (gill nets). The females’d bump into it and back off a little. With the 2 1/2-inch (mesh) nets, I hardly ever caught a female.”

Ray said hurricanes, such as 1999’s devastating Hurricane Floyd, “ran the fish out of here. But more than that, a lot of the mess (pesticides, fertilizer) in the fields run back into the (streams). Who knows what that did to ’em? I know we didn’t have as many (shad) after the storms flooded fields around here.”

Eastern N.C. natives, such as Ray, who fish for a few herring to eat or “pickle” in salt sometimes use bow nets. Bow nets (an American Indian design) traditionally are made of a limber piece of sapling bent into a circular shape with a net in the middle. An angler holds a bow net in the water at a swift-water run in a spawning stream and lets herring swim into it, then he scoops the herring out of the water with the net.

However, Norman Williams of Windsor, standing on Hoggard Mill Road Bridge, likes to catch his herring using a little more sporting technique — which may be a surprise to biologists.

He fishes from the bridge with a rod and reel with terminal tackle of a leader with five tiny jigs on dropper lines and a lead weight tied to the end. The outfit resembles a small version of an ocean angler’s live-bait Sabiki rig, often used to jig and catch blue runners for king mackerel baits or a bass angler’s “drop-shot” rig.

“It’s called a Jericho rig,” Williams said. “I’ve been using it for about two years. I catch my share of herring with it. I don’t always do it, but I’ve limited out (25 herring a day) a few times.”

Williams said he also catches white perch, bream and even rockfish (striped bass) with the Jericho rig.

But most anglers aren’t using bow nets, dip nets or Jericho rigs for herring during the spring — they’re after shad.

The preferred shad-fishing technique is to use ultra-light spinning reels with 4- to 8-pound-test line and a spoon-and-shad-dart combination. Some anglers like tiny (1/16-ounce) leadhead jigs with white or chartreuse curly-tail grubs (crappie jigs) or No. 3 silver or gold spoons. Most use tandem rigs with a dart on the front dropper line and the spoon at the back.

Fly-rod anglers often use small Clouser minnows in silver or chartreuse patterns with gold tinsel.

One piece of advice: bring plenty of rigs because shad tend to hug the bottom or congregate behind underwater structure (rocks, limbs, fallen trees) that breaks the current. That means anglers will hang up and break off lures regularly.

If you’re lucky enough to have a shad dart or spoon slammed by a big American shad, 6- to 8-pound-test line is recommended because these are strong fish.

The Cashie doesn’t have many American shad, but the Tar River is a different matter. The nice thing about the Tar is its upper spawning grounds are in the town of Rocky Mount, which isn’t a long drive from most eastern or Piedmont counties. Driving east or west on U.S. 64, anglers can exit at N.C. 43 south, then make a quick left onto Battle Park Lane, which parallels U.S. 64. At the end of the lane is a free public boat ramp and parking area. The park also has trails along the banks of the Tar River and sturdy city-built fishing piers to take advantage of shad and striper runs.

After our trio of anglers fished the Cashie, we drove toward home the next morning and stopped in Rocky Mount to fish the Tar.

Hicks, a public-works director for the city of Burlington, owns a wide-beam, shallow-draft fiberglass boat, perfect for fishing the river. The current was swift and muddy, and we headed upstream for a couple hundred yards before the going became treacherous. Boaters should be aware the city removed trees from the river after Hurricane Floyd, but its bottom still has plenty of rocks and wood that can damage lower units.

We tied the boat to a tree at the point of a small island that split the river. The current was swift as rocks protruded above the water a few hundred feet on the west side of the island.

Hicks and a friend, Ronnie Wilson, fished shad darts and spoons, but an ultra-light’s crappie jig, tossed behind the boat and allowed to wiggle in the current, enticed the first strike of the day, a 5-pound American shad. After catching a few smaller fish, White untied the boat and Hicks guided us downstream.

Other anglers had anchored or rope-tied boats to downed trees near the west bank (no one fishes the middle of the river, only near the shore), but two, Don Everett and Bob Williams of Rocky Mount, sitting in a bass boat just a few hundred feet upstream from the Norfolk and Southern Railway bridge, had found a hot spot.

“We caught about 100 so far today,” Williams said, holding up a 5-pound American shad. “Threw all of ’em back except this one.

“It goes in spells. You don’t catch any for a while, then they’ll bite every time you throw a dart or spoon.

“The best places to fish are from the launch ramp (at Battle Park) to the first railroad bridge.”

Anglers may keep 10 total-in-the-aggregate hickory or American shad each day. There’s no minimum size limit. The hickories begin their spawning run during late February and peak in March. The American shad run hits its high spot during early May.

The hottest spot in the state for non-stop action, almost all 1- to 2 1/2-pound hickories with rare catches of American shad, is the Roanoke River at Weldon where anglers line the rocky shoreline at the WRC launch ramp or fish from boats near the ramp and downstream for a half-mile. But Hicks and Wilson wanted to avoid the hordes of anglers and launch congestion, plus bigger American shads were their target.

“If you don’t like to eat the shad or the roe, shad make real good striper baits,” said Andy Eure, a Windsor native fishing the Cashie. “I freeze ‘em whole, then cut ‘em up to use for stripers. The best place to fish for stripers around here is at the meeting (confluence) of the Roanoke, Cashie and Middle Rivers.”

The striper run begins at the mouths of those rivers during March, with most of the fish heading up the Roanoke River to Weldon where anglers simply upsize their tackle to enjoy a seamless fishing bonanza, switching from shad to stripers, starting when the dogwoods begin to bloom in April.

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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