Cape Fear River shad run cranks up in March

Cape Fear River shad
Guide Jot Owens caught this shad at the base of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River.

Anglers flock to ENC for spring shad run

The Cape Fear River is best known for the variety of excellent saltwater fishing from Wilmington N.C., down to its mouth near Southport. But the spring shad run brings fishermen upriver to the locks and dams between Riegelwood and Fayetteville.

One of the favorite locations to catch Cape Fear River shad, which just happens to be the first place they make a good showing, is in the tailrace of Lock and Dam No. 1, about 6 miles upriver from Riegelwood. Lock and Dam No. 1 is the first of three U.S. Army Corps of Engineers locks and dams that migrating fish encounter between the mouth of the river and Fayetteville. It was completed in 1915 and followed by Lock and Dam No. 2 and the William O. Huske Lock and Dam in the next 20 years.

These locks and dams aided navigation to Fayetteville. But that need has passed, and they continue to impede the spawning migration of several fish species. In November 2012, a rock-arch fish ladder was completed at Lock and Dam No. 1 to aid fish crossing the dam. This project also included renovating the launching ramp at the base of the locks.

The fish ladder has been less beneficial than hoped for all species. But it has proven fairly successful for shad. The fish ladder allows them to cross the dam more reliably, yet still congregates them at the base of the rapids.

Small tackle and lures are the norm here

Area fishermen say the Cape Fear River shad run usually begins in March and sometimes lasts into May. Spawning shad stage at the base of the fish ladder before crossing the dam, and it makes for fun fishing.

Shad fishermen use a variety of shad darts, small spoons and small curlytail grubs on light and ultralight tackle to fully enjoy the acrobatic fight of the shad. The action can be fast and furious during the peak of the run.

Capt. Jot Owens of Jot It Down Charters ( in Wrightsville Beach has clients that book every year to enjoy the shad run. Shad pull exceptionally well for their size and often jump, earning them the name “Poor man’s tarpon.”

“I prefer a tandem shad-dart rig,” Owens said. “I tie a double-drop rig in 20-pound fluorocarbon. One of the drops is a foot long and has a 1/4-ounce shad dart. The other drop is 2 feet long and has a 1/16-ounce or lighter dart. I try different colors to see what is working best that day but generally catch most using pink and purple or chartreuse and bright green.”

Owens said to concentrate on the edges between calm and running water. He also pointed out that keeping the line tight in the current is critical for feeling strikes.

Jerry Dilsaver
About Jerry Dilsaver 1174 Articles
Jerry Dilsaver of Oak Island, N.C., a full-time freelance writer, is a columnist for Carolina Sportsman. He is a former SKA National Champion and USAA Angler of the Year.

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