Big shad are biting on the Santee River

Chan Ritchie drove up from Florida to catch shad in the Santee River. He was not disappointed, despite some terrible weather.

Santee River shad fishing trip nets trophy shad for fly-fisherman

The following Reader Report comes to us from Chan Ritchie, who contacted us earlier this year for a Santee River guide recommendation…

Only twice can I recall my rod hand and forearm being this sore on the morning after. The second time was the morning after a day on the private trophy trout waters of the Soque River.

As much as I love fly fishing for Atlantic shad, I have grown tired of their fickle presence in the narrows of the upper St. Johns River. Thank goodness the shad’s namesake Atlantic Ocean does not stop at the Florida/Georgia line.

For several years, I have read stories from South Carolina boys about their unreal shad fishery. Tales of 25-inch shad weighing three, four, or even five pounds are not hard to find. I can stretch the size of a fish as good as any respectable fish person. But a 25-inch shad? Yeah, right.

“Those lowcountry boys have been smoking too many palmetto leaves,” I thought to myself as I read.

Wild literary exaggerations notwithstanding, in late January, I began the hunt for a Carolina shad guide. Good fortune shined on me when an outdoor writer pointed me to Capt. Joe Dennis of Summerville, S.C.

The stories of gargantuan shad are true

Talking to Joe, I could tell he is my kind of guide. A down-to-earth local sportsman who grew up shooting ducks, spooking turkeys, running trot lines, and catching redfish. But when Joe told me that 50-fish days are not uncommon in his neck of the woods, I asked “Do you use a gill net or electroshock them? I haven’t caught 50 shad over the past five years on the St Johns.”

Joe’s tone remained steady and certain. His quiet confidence created in me a desire to fish as soon as possible. So I was shocked when Joe told me to wait until mid-March or April. It’s an unusual thing for a hired rod-slinger to say. We agree on March 20. I contacted fellow redfish stalker and friend Rich Walker of Charleston. He jumped at my invitation to explore the myth of  migrating Palmetto State monsters.

Rich Walker also got in on the action with shad and even striped bass.

As the date drew nigh, I had a good feeling. Temperatures across the southeast climbed to early summer temps and hovered steady in the 60s and 70s. Then, BAM! The shine was off. The day before our trip, a cold  front elbowed through my hopes and imagination. The gray skies to the north dropped rain that would seek lower ground on a collision course with our adventure.

I called Joe expecting him to cancel. But his confidence in finding biting fish held steady.

Worsening weather didn’t dampen the fishing

I loaded the car and headed north. With every dark mile, the temp was dropping. And the rain was falling. Saturday morning, Rich and I shook hands as high winds drove another nail into the coffin of my great expectations. The relentless wind echoed an eerie moan to both of us: “You boys did not bring enough clothes.”

Ten minutes later, we met up with Joe. If he was concerned about finding biting fish, his eyes did not betray him. I liked him immediately. So much did we have in common that it was like meeting up with an old friend with whom I had not fished in 30 years.

As the boat slid off the trailer into the Ovaltine-stained water, I looked around and saw nothing but the beauty of the forest. I half expected to see turkey and deer standing within sight. I could hear the whistling quarrels of multiple osprey. So I knew we had fish. But would they bite?

Yes. Yes, indeed they would bite. And they would fight like no shad I had ever fought before.

It took ten minutes or so of casting before I found the rhythm that made these fish strike. Then it was game on. These shad are much more powerful than those of my home waters. This could be due to the fact that they travel half the distance that our Florida shad travel.

“Wait until you get a good one”

The first fish I hooked had me shaking my head and saying “This ain’t no shad.” Joe laughed through a confident grin and replied “Just wait and see.” I did not have to wait long because soon, the fish was tail-walking. It was a buck as pristine as a freshly-minted silver dollar. A “small” fish of 16 inches whose heart, power and stamina rivaled that of a 22-inch redfish.

As the little mean buck came to the net, Joe said “wait until you get a good one.” Again, my wait was not long.

I felt the thump of the angry mother shad. The cold steel hook sunk into her jaw served only to enrage her further. She stayed on the bottom as she ran around the end of the boat, causing Rich and I to do a dance at the transom, as he too was hooked up.

After multiple runs, the big girl burst into the air. I expected to hear gill plates rattling. I said “that’s a 20 incher.” With knowing stare, Joe replied, “25.”

And so the morning went. Bursts of activity followed by brief lulls, then hot action again. Rich landed a find striped bass of 5 or 6 pounds I suspect that I let a larger one get away. Joe was 50/50 in his opinion of the one that got away. It was either a good striper or an excellent shad.

A personal best — or two before the day was done

It bit like a shad, but I could do nothing to stop the fish. In short order, I was fighting this fish “on the reel.” As the knob spun backward, Rich looked at me and said “you’re gonna need a bigger reel.”

Then I felt that dreaded vibration of the line rubbing against an unseen object and I knew that a sunken treetop would come between me and stardom on the cover of Carolina Sportsman Magazine. That treetop took my fame. But it did give up three nice crappie.

When quitting time snuck up on us at 1 p.m., I had set two personal bests: 18 shad caught on the fly rod, and a 23 incher. Unimpressed, Joe again said “Wait until you get a good one.”

By Joe’s estimation, this was a mediocre day. I cannot imagine what a good day must be like. Heck, my rod hand and forearm are both sore due to overexertion, which leads me to say this: Do not bring a trout stream rod to this fishery.

Ready to make it a yearly adventure

A saltwater-style long handle with a rod butt knob is needed for leverage. Otherwise, your rod hand will get tired of hanging on while these fish run. A 5-weight to 7-weight is fine. I used a sinking tip line. Due to the dirty water, I was unconcerned with leader shyness. So I cut it down to four feet of 10-pound fluorocarbon.

Joe said this bite will likely last through April. He does have some afternoon slots open on his calendar if you want to experience this fishery. Driving four hours to catch 18 shad beats driving two hours zero shad every time in my book. Plus, you may catch stripers and maybe a 4-pound crappie.

For 7 years, Joe has been the host of Father and Son Outdoors TV on the Pursuit Channel. He is a busy man, so now is a good time to book a group outing for next year. You can reach Joe at

–Chan Ritchie

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