Swim Upstream

One of the best ways to fish for shad is to use a boat to search a river, find an underwater obstruction that creates a pocket that holds fish, then tie to a tree and just go fishing.

American shad, weighing as much as 6 pounds, provide excellent spring fishing at several S.C. rivers.Popping up like daffodils this month are roadside signs at Mom and Pop country stores.

You only see them for a short period of time, but like dogwoods to a turkey hunter, these symbols announce another fishing season has begun.

“Fresh Shad Roe” is spray-painted on a remnant piece of plywood or lazily spelled out (i.e., missing a few letters) on one of those lighted signs relegated only to cheap used-car lots.

For an angler who has been cooped up all winter, the arrival of shad in the state’s coastal rivers means it’s time to go fishing.

Routinely overshadowed by more glamorous gamefish, shad are the Rodney Dangerfields of the aquatic world. However, that reputation is unfounded.

Shad make a migration that would cause a largemouth to burst a heart valve and their tenacity on light tackle make stripers seem like the over-hyped bully of the school yard. As if those qualities weren’t enough, their taste on the plate is as special as the anglers that fish for them.

Shad fishing in the Palmetto State is a sport practiced by a few but dedicated anglers. But don’t let the lack of participation convince you not to go. Shad are relatively easy to catch with basic equipment once you understand the fish and how to catch them.

While the special shad season isn’t specifically defined by law, the arrival and departure of the fish and the short time period in between makes most of their fans think otherwise.

“Water temperature is the driving force of the shad migration in our rivers,” said Steve Leach, an anadramous fisheries biologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at the Dennis Wildlife Center at Bonneau. “In addition to temperature, water flow is also an important factor.”

Leach said when the water temperature reaches a magic number in the lower reaches of the rivers, that’s when the shad start their run.

“Some shad will begin trickling into the rivers at 45 degrees, but the large movements that spark angler interest doesn’t happen until the water is at least 50 degrees,” he said. “The shad species that’s most common in S.C. rivers is the American shad. There are some hickory shad, but Americans far outnumber them, probably 100 to 1.

“What’s interesting is in N.C. rivers hickories are more common than American shad. It’s speculated that’s the case because of commercial overfishing of American shad there and what habitat is available seems more suitable for hickory shad spawning than for American shad.”

Leach said before shad enter S.C. rivers they’ve taken quite a summer vacation.

“Shad move up and down the East Coast,” he said. “By the peak of summer the fish are up in Nova Scotia feeding on the abundant food resources of those cold waters. The fish migrate down the coast in the fall, and during a normal winter will be positioned right off the Carolina coast. However, if it gets really cold, the shad might move as far south as the Florida coast.”

Shad will continue this circuitous trip until they become adults.

“Shad return to the rivers where they were born,” Leach said, “making runs when they’re from about 3- to 7-years old, with most of them in the 4- to 5-years-old range.”

The first shad begin showing up during mid January.

“There are a few anglers that catch some fish in January at the hot-water discharges in the lower Cooper River where it spills into Charleston Harbor,” Leach said. “However, the large number of shad won’t begin showing up until usually the second week of February. The peak at the Santee and Cooper rivers is normally mid March.”

Leach said the other shad hot spot is New Savannah Bluff at the Savannah River near Augusta. Because of the cold-water discharge from the lower depths of Lake Thurmond and the distance of the area from the ocean, the fish arrive there in peak numbers about two weeks later than at the Santee and Cooper rivers.

“The run will last until about the end of April,” Leach said. “If the water temperature reaches 75 degrees, it’s over for all practical purposes.”

He said the Cooper River run usually ends sooner than at the Santee because of the Cooper’s shorter length and proximity to the ocean.

To continue their existence, once the shad run upriver, they pass through the fish lift at the Rediversion Canal of the Santee River outside St. Stephens that flows into the Santee Cooper lakes. Fish migrating through the Cooper River enter the lakes via the boat lock near Moncks Corner.

Once in the lakes, the fish continue migrating upstream. Before dams blocked their passage, shad would run all the way into North Carolina and the far reaches of inland South Carolina. Today, the fish are spawning in the Congaree and Wateree rivers outside of Columbia. Ideal spawning sites include areas of flowing water over a non-muddy substrate.

Similar to salmon, after the adult shad spawn they die. For centuries, humans viewed this as unfortunate. But scientists have recently discovered this process is vital to the river systems and surrounding ecosystems.

During the shads’ lifetime, they consume nutrients and convert them to growth. Once these fish dies and decomposes, they becoms a nutrient that fertilizes organisms in the river ecosystem, which transfers nutrients from the ocean to inland areas.

Another factor that can affect the shad run is river flow.

“Shad key on flow to move upstream,” Leach said. “They will follow the strongest flow.”

Leach was alluding to the peak of the drought in 2002 when more shad bypassed the Rediversion Canal at the Santee River and continued up the main stem of the river to Lake Marion’s Wilson Dam. The fishing was much better between the Rediversion Canal and the dam than in the canal that year.

The reason was little water was being passed through the St. Stephens dam at the Rediversion Canal. An attraction flow at the fish lift, used to guide shad towards the lift, was run but only flowed at 100 cubic feet of water per second at the time. However, water spilling across Wilson Dam runs at a minimum 600 cfs. So the shad were attracted there, as were anglers, because of the greater flow.

During wetter times, the flow at St. Stephens dam water flow can reach 24,000 cfs. So in most years, anglers can expect to find shad in the Rediversion Canal of the Santee.

The Cooper River has its own idiosyncrasies. During 1998, for example, the boat lock was being repaired during the shad run. Since no fish were able to be moved into the lakes, they stacked up in front of the dam in abundance, resulting in excellent fishing.

The point is anglers shouldn’t be hung up on fishing only the Santee or Cooper but rather should pay attention to the details of each river and be willing to shift locations.

Creel surveys conducted by SCDNR at the Cooper River can give anglers an idea of how many fish they can expect to catch.

“During the shad run, we’ve been conducting creel surveys where we interview anglers about their fishing success at the Cooper River since 2000,” Leach said. “The fishing success has been showing an improving trend, with last year showing the highest success.

“The average shad fisherman fishes for about 5 hours. Last years shad anglers averaged 5.8 fish per person per day.”

At times, persistent anglers catch more than two dozen fish per trip. Since 2000 the average catch per trip per angler has been 3.6, 3.4, 2.8, 4.6, 4.2 and last year’s 5.8 fish.

“When compared to other shad fishing areas on the East Coast, these are really good rates,” Leach said.

What was most striking to Leach was how few people actually fish for shad. When you pull your boat up to the shad fishing area at the sanctuary line in front of Pinopolis Dam at the Cooper River you might think otherwise, given the number of boats.

“We ask during the creel survey if an angler has been interviewed before that year,” Leach said. “By taking this data, we can estimate how many different anglers there are on the river. In 2005 our minimum estimate was only 137 shad anglers.”

How’s that for a small, dedicated bunch of anglers?

“Through our surveying what we’ve found is that there are only a few fishermen, but they end up going a whole bunch of times,” Leach said.

He said the two biggest spots for shad fishing are the Santee and Cooper rivers, with most people at the Cooper River’s Pinopolis Dam.

“The top spot at the Cooper River seems to be right at the sanctuary line on the right-hand side as you head upstream,” Leach said. “I’ve heard all kinds of reasons why this is the case, including because the river is in the Northern Hemisphere and the Corollas effect pushes the fish to that bank.

“The more likely reason is the turbines are on the right side of the dam as you face it from downstream. There’s probably more flow there, since the lock is on the left, and shad move towards the flow. On some flow rates through the turbines, the water actually runs upstream.”

Leach doesn’t have any data to indicate when fishing success is greatest, but most anglers say water flow is the key, although a few claim they’ve had better luck a half hour after the turbines shut off.

Leach’s data has shown people who start fishing earlier in the day tend to do poorer, but he said this may be an artifact of securing a fishing location.

“Anglers jockey for those spots along the right side, so naturally if you want one, you have to leave early in the day to get it,” he said. “So when these fishermen come in and we ask them their start time, it’s early in the morning. Compared to someone who arrives later and may not get one of the perceived better spots, he appears to do just as well.

“There could be another reason too. When the sun is high and the water clear, shad seem to bite better. We know shad are visual predators, and they don’t feed during the run. They are probably hitting lures out of instinct, and it makes the most sense that they would hit a lure when it is most visible, which is when conditions are bright.”

Following the visibility theme, most anglers rely upon bright lures, commonly chartreuse or white.

“I use a bright double rig,” said Capt. John Irwin of Fly Right Charters (843-860-4231 or http://www.flyrightcharters.com) and Charleston Angler tackle shop in West Ashley. “I tie on a shad dart and leave a long tag end. On the tag end, I add a 2-inch Gotcha curly-tail grub. Both lures usually consist of hot pink or chartreuse or combination of the two colors.

“Most of the fish hit the curly-tail lure in this setup,” Irwin said. “The shad dart is used to get the bait down in the water column, and sometimes you’ll catch two fish at a time.”

Shad darts are common lures for Northeastern coastal states shad anglers. The tiny lead-headed baits feature an angled, flat face and deer hair body. Leach mentioned Angler’s convenience store in Moncks Corner and some Charleston retailers have begun stocking shad darts during the spring. Whether using shad darts or curly-tailed baits, most lures are rarely larger than 1/16 ounce.

Fly fishing for shad is another choice that’s gaining attention.

“I enjoy fly fishing for shad,” Irwin said. “We tie flies right there in the shop at Charleston Angler for folks. Usually the fly mimics what you would use with conventional tackle. A chartreuse Wonderhair body with a pink head is the most common pattern.”

Irwin recommended anglers use a 6- or 7-weight fly rod with a shooting head line. With a shooting head line, the first 30 feet sinks while the remaining fly line floats.

“The shooting head line has a sink rate of 7 inches per second,” Irwin said. “Because of this, you’ll want to roll cast it. Cast it upstream, get the line tight and let it sweep down current.”

If you opt for conventional tackle, an ultra-light setup is all that is needed for shad. Leach’s data indicate the average-sized shad at the Cooper River is about 17-inches long, with females larger than males. Most fish will only be 1 or 2 pounds, but females upwards of 6 pounds are possible.

“Our catch data indicates that about 66 percent of the fish people catch are females,” Leach said. “Catch-and-release fishing is legal, and we’re sure people are culling for females for the roe — but we don’t recommend it. Research has shown stress is a factor, and released shad don’t do real well.”

The limit is 10 shad per person at rivers in South Carolina, except the Santee, where the limit is 20 shad per day.

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