Springtime shad

Mike Marsh caught this shad at Cape Fear River Lock and Dam No. 1. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

The Cape Fear and Santee rivers are spring shad hotspots

A dozen boats were anchored downstream of Lock and Dam No. 1 on the Cape Fear River in Bladen County, North Carolina. The boats were as varied as the fishermen inside the colorful kayaks, aluminum johnboats and fiberglass skiffs. They were dressed in everything from blue jeans and tee shirts to the latest high-end sportswear.

Most had traveled less than an hour, but one boat was filled with anglers from western South Carolina, including Jack Horan, who had lived in Charlotte and provided outdoor sports content for the Charlotte Observer. In 2016, after moving to Sun City Lakes in Indian Land, S.C., he helped form Sun City Lakes Sport Fishing Club to better manage and enjoy the lakes of his new home.

The club members make annual road trips as well. Howard Nichols owned the Alumacraft center console. Also along was club member Larry Frick and a friend from Wilmington, Pat St. John.

“I began fishing for shad when I was writing an article and fished for them from a canoe in Pitch Kettle Creek where it joins the Neuse River,” Horan said. “I also fished for ‘Christmas shad’ on the Cooper River in South Carolina in December. It was intriguing to read about the fish’s historical abundance. They got settlers through winter on every little feeder creek. People shoveled them into barrels and black bears clawed shad from the water like grizzly bears do during salmon runs.

“The best shad book ever written was, ‘The Founding Fish’ by John McPhee, an ardent shad fisherman. He explores all aspects of shad fishing on the East Coast. An unconfirmed theory was that Washington sheltered his troops at Valley Forge because the spring shad run could have helped to feed the Continental Army. When a Wilmington friend told me about the Cape Fear River, I figured it must have the best shad fishing and the best time to fish there is late March or early April.”

While the fish are not nearly as abundant, having suffered dams and other alterations to their river spawning habitats, increased fishing and other factors, shad are still plentiful enough to entice sport fishermen like Horan to drive a half-day to try their luck. To ensure a good trip, Horan checks the river flow at waterdata.usgs.gov/nc.

Jack Horan lands a leaping shad at Cape Fear River Lock and Dam No. 1. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

Dam 1 is king

“The fishing at Dam 1 is best during low flows because high flows allow shad to swim easily over it to Dams 2 and 3,” Horan said. “I have experienced my best fishing at Dam 1 at flows of 3000 cfs. At 7,000 cfs, the number of fish we hook declines substantially.”

Low flows at Dam 1 also make it easier to anchor a boat. There are also fewer problems with current eddies and the floating logs circulating in them that snag lures and interfere with netting hooked shad. Anglers must adhere to the warning signs on both sides of the river. They mark the foot of the rocks, which are especially hazardous during low water.

Horan and his buddies use 7-foot spinning rods and reels with 10-pound test monofilament lines. They usually cast jigs with soft curly tail trailers and shad darts. They net every shad with a net to prevent harm to the fish they release and to keep the hooks from tearing free from the fishes’ soft mouths.

“I prefer pink or chartreuse curly grubs on 1/8- or 1/16-ounce jigs,” Horan said. “We switch colors to see what they are biting best that day. Sometimes we tie on one jig but seem to have more success with two jigs. It’s exciting to have two fish hooked up at the same time.”

Sometimes, the fish aren’t biting in the area the anglers are anchored. They may move the boat to try another spot. If another angler who has been having good luck leaves, they fill the open hole in the line of boats.

“While you are fishing, it pays to keep looking downstream so you will see fish coming upriver,” he said. “A few minutes later, you will feel taps on your jig and start having some hookups.”

While Horan has made several trips to Dam 1, Nichols has made the trip only twice. The first trip was in 2021 and the anglers caught and released 35 shad.

“In 2022, we could scarcely get a bite,” Nichols said. “When I caught another angler’s line, I saw he was using a spoon rather than a jig. Jack bought a couple of spoons from him and we started catching fish on them. Shad are such hard fighting, pretty fish, it’s a thrill to catch each one. You catch them fast and furious. Then, you don’t.”

Anglers line up downstream of Lock and Dam No. 1 to fish for shad, which peaks on the Cape Fear River in late March. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

Kyle Rachels is the NCWRC District 4 Fisheries Biologist. He said recent telemetry studies have shown that shad have been successfully clearing the rock arch rapid at Dam 1 and moving upstream to Dams 2 and 3. Until Hurricane Matthew damaged the locks in 2016, they were operated in the spring to help the fish move upstream. The locks should be repaired and placed back into service later this year.

Check Dam 2

“Telemetry studies show that the best shad fishing at Dam 1 is around the last week of March,” Rachels said. “But they only spend a day or two there before moving to Dam 2, where the fishing is better during the first two weeks of April. During high flow conditions, they also move quickly upstream to Dam 3.”

An increasing number of anglers are fishing at Dam 2, where there is better bank fishing access and an excellent ramp. While Dam 1 has a good ramp, woody debris can cause launching problems and it lacks easy bank casting except from the foot of the ramp. The public fishing pier is not a good place to catch shad because of its height. The fishes’ delicate mouths allow hooks to tear free if the fish are lifted with the rod.

Rachels said few hickory shad make their way upstream of Dam 1 unless they are moved through the locks. However, anglers who keep shad must know the difference between hickory and American shad because the limit is five of each fish with a combined limit of 10. American shad have a single spot on the gill cover. Hickory shad have several spots on the gill cover as well as a lower jaw that is longer than the upper.

Shad should be landed with a rubber net, which are less likely to snag and rip, and also less likely to harm fish being released. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

Santee River shad run

Bill Post, the SCDNR Diadromous Fish Coordinator, said once water temperatures reach 50 to 55 degrees, shad will be making their way to the St. Stephen Dam on the Santee River. While the Cooper River was once considered the best place to catch shad, the Santee River’s Re-Diversion Canal has been getting a lot of attention from anglers.

“Shad go upriver to the fish lift at St. Stephen Dam,” he said. “Anglers launch at Arrowhead Landing on Highway 45 and go upriver as far as the sanctuary signs at the railroad trestle. There is good bank fishing as well. I use a spoon or jig and harass them until they hit it. When the run is thick, I have caught them on a bare hook. If the current is strong, I put a split shot on the line to keep the lure running deep.”

Anglers anchor along both sides of the river. Long casts are not the best way to catch shad. The fish are right beneath the boat so all it takes to hook a shad is letting the lure sink. Anglers should keep an eye on the water flow. If the turbines stop generating, the water drops enough that a boat anchored near the bank can land on the rocks. However, the channel will still have enough flow for fishing and navigation.

During the last week of March or first week of April, the USACE and SCDNR host a Wounded Warriors and Veterans Shad Fishing Day. Dam releases are scheduled to increase flows to ensure good fishing and participants can fish in the sanctuary. SCDNR samples shad for length and age, but anglers may also keep their 20 shad limits. The event and other information are available at dnr.sc.gov

Blue catfish are a bonus catch for shad anglers on the Cape Fear River. (Photo by Mike Marsh)

Blue cat bonus

Blue catfish are highly mobile predators that follow baitfish schools, and shad are at the top of their menu. Unable to swim over dams, they congregate in large numbers at the downstream bases during the spring spawning runs of shad.

Anglers who want to catch catfish and are also fishing for shad have only to use a bottom rig to sink a chunk of shad. Catfish smell the scent drifting downstream from great distances and quickly move in to mouth the bait.

A fish finder rig, also known by bass anglers as a Carolina rig, or any other catfish rig can work. However, hooks, leaders and weights are likely to snag in the rocks on the bottom of the rivers where shad migrate.

A better bet is using a simple weighted hook, such as those used for fishing large soft baits for bass or red drum. A large undressed jig, simply another version of a weighted hook, can also work. It may take the lighter hook longer to get to the bottom and require a longer line length due to the angle. However, if the angler pays attention and lifts the hook slightly off the bottom just as it hits, it will hold the bait above the rocks, where it won’t snag.

About Mike Marsh 356 Articles
Mike Marsh is a freelance outdoor writer in Wilmington, N.C. His latest book, Fishing North Carolina, and other titles, are available at www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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