“Spring can really hang you up the most,” Sarah Vaughan sang, and when it comes to trout fishing and the quality of early-season baseball, she pretty much hit the nail on the head. Spring baseball and trout fishing can be much less wonderful than they promised to be in your winter dreams of balmy afternoons and breezes heavy with the scent of new blossoms.
Yes, spring can be a big tease … unless you happen to be a shad fisherman. In my part of the country in the Northeast, you can nearly always count on the reappearance of these silvery, golden, high-leaping and hard-running gamefish. Each year, when the water warms to 50 degrees, sex-obsessed shad convoy up East Coast rivers on their way to their ancient spawning grounds. And just as dependably, squadrons of jonboats, runabouts and canoes will deploy in hope of taking something home for dinner. You’ll find a ragtag fleet of anglers sprouting beneath every bridge abutment, on the edge of every channel, on the deeper, calm side of foam-wracked current seams.
Part of the pleasure of shad fishing is that it requires more finesse than just horsing ’em in, compared, say, to walleye, another early-season fish. In fact, because of the shad’s soft mouth, he who horses often loses. But hook him well and play him delicately, and he will breach and sound, tail-walk and peel line — just about everything you would want a fish to do. No fish in our East Coast rivers puts on such a hell-bent display.
The spawning fish enter river systems from North Carolina to New England, where they have delighted gourmets since the days of Thomas Jefferson (and Native American gourmets for thousands of years before that). Shad is delicious, though boney as hell to filet, which may explain why old-time recipes called for cooking it until the bones dissolve. For the record, I don’t. The delicate, clean-tasting flesh cries out for gentle poaching (thankfully, a no-brainer method); serve it with a dollop of homemade mayonnaise. If you can find them, fiddlehead ferns, ramps and morels are often popping in the bottom land along the river — the fixings for a true hunter/gatherer feast.
There’s often the bonus of a pair of roe from every female shad you boat. If the shad, because of its fighting abilities, can be called the “poor man’s salmon,” then just as surely the chestnut-colored roe, sautéed in bacon drippings, occupies the place of caviar on the poor man’s dinner plate.
I started to fish for shad in the late 1970s when Ed Broderick, a college roommate, invited me to his family’s fishing camp, part of a pop-up community of simple shacks, old mobile homes and repurposed school buses that had squatter’s rights on one of the original Dutch land grants on the Delaware River. The temporary residents of the place I came to call Shad Town gathered each year to welcome the spawning run as it passed a bend in one of the Northeast’s last undammed, free-flowing rivers.
The surest sign that the fish were in the river was a wispy column of wood smoke rising from a shed, where one of the more enterprising Shad Towners would trade you one smoked filet for a freshly caught shad. In other words, a two-for-one deal: You got a delicacy, and he got an extra filet that he could later sell.
On those afternoons, we’d chug across the current with the aid of Ed’s semireliable 5-hp motor and take up a position along a current seam that abutted a channel favored by the migrating fish. At that time of year we would often encounter a dozen boats, filled with like-minded fishermen, anchored in double file over a hundred-yard stretch. When the sun was at just the right angle, its rays would light up the monofilament of fishing lines held taut in the current by the weight of shad darts, a brightly colored cone-shaped jig sporting a bright-feathered tail — the traditional lure of choice. There would also be a few anglers who preferred flutter spoons and, in more recent years, more lethal downriggers — not an angling method I love, but it works.
Having taken up your spot, you would wait. Fishing buddies renewed old bonds, tossing wisecracks back and forth with friends they hadn’t seen for a year. Others just stared at the river, its flow as hypnotic as firelight. On a nice day, I swear you could track the blush of green as it climbed the hillside like a coloring book filling in. On such pretty days I would almost be tempted to say that, fish or no, it was just good to be out there in nature, but in truth, it’s been 40 years since I’d said — and believed — that old saw. When I fish, I want to catch. For me a successful hookup in a drainage ditch beats going fishless in a postcard-pretty scene. (OK, I guess I see the point of downriggers.)
Sooner or later someone would tie into a shad. There was rarely, if ever, an outing when the whole gaggle of boats was skunked. Like a sleeping uncle roused from a post-Thanksgiving nap when the pumpkin pie shows up, the whole angling congregation roused to action. For starters, it was important to take the measure of the moment to avoid tangled lines. The shad would leap and shake its head, tear upstream and down. It was always touch-and-go whether the furious fish would tear loose of the hook.
In my experience a higher percentage of shad are hooked and lost than any other gamefish, except for its gargantuan cousin, the tarpon. Eventually, if the guy who hooked up managed to come fast to yet another shad, all boats slowly started to knot up in a tighter formation to get closer to what appeared to be the hot spot. It was on such an afternoon, when one fisherman had an impressive fishing session, that I learned the adage “raise a rod and draw a crowd.”
The consternating — if that’s a real word — thing about such fortunate fishermen is you could be on the same spot as the guy who is reeling in fish after fish, and he’ll continue to slay ’em while your offering waves in the current, untroubled by a shadly swipe. I have concluded, from years of watching the same thing go down on trout streams, bass ponds and striper jetties, that although it may be true that there are places more likely to hold fish than others, the real heart of the matter is that some people are just fishy. Maybe they adjust their retrieve ever so slightly or cast just a bit more precisely, but the most likely explanation is they are born lucky.
For years, fishing for shad with darts on a spinning rig was the only way I pursued these fish. It was a leisurely and undemanding warm-up to the hatch-matching and precision casting of fly-fishing for trout. All things being equal, I am a fly rod addict, and once mayflies started to hatch and trout began to feed on the surface, I paid less attention to the telltale wakes of shad when I came upon them in the denouement of their spawning run on some of the best trout pools on the river.
Was it fly-fishing snobbishness on my part? Maybe, but it’s also the case that we tend to see certain fish as further up the chain of angling esteem. For example, in late September I am out of my mind for false albacore when they start to show in numbers in New York waters. But as rip-roaring as an albie might be, once the stripers start to blitz in October, the Alberts lose my attention.
I had been similarly faithless toward shad until friends began to take them on a fly rod. It was just a matter of time until I tried my hand at fly-fishing for shad, as well. I remember the exact day, a brilliant sun-washed afternoon in mid-May on one of the famous pools of the Delaware. Famous, yes, but perhaps because of the intense sun, not very productive. Pale pink Hendricksons and king-size March browns floated along on the current, but no fish rose to our flies. In fact, no fish rose to real flies.
My brother, Don, and I sat there wondering what, if anything, to do next. We stared into the depths of the pool. Clear water, big rocks, sun and shadow … and then, like the majestically robed members of a choir silently taking their places before the first note of the organ sounds, shad filed into the pool, about 60 fish. It was just like the behavior of tarpon when a school appears in the shallows of the Florida Keys. And just as with tarpon at such times, I could cast and cast to the plainly visible fish and not raise a flicker of interest, but that didn’t deter me from trying again.
It wasn’t until I hooked up with John McPhee, the renowned author who is perhaps the most famous shadaholic of them all, that I began to have some success with my fly rod. In his slouch hat and time-worn Princeton sweatshirt, John can often be found somewhere on the Delaware between Lambertville and Trenton, New Jersey, trailing a fly line or two from his canoe. (His book about shad, The Founding Fish, is a mix of personal, natural and American history.) Having fished with John for a few seasons, I think what he likes is the simplicity of the quest.
“Fishing from my canoe with fly rod and sinking line and sinking leader, I sometimes hook more shad than anyone else in sight,” he recently wrote me. Although fishing for trout attracts commentary that borders on the verbal overkill of wine tasting, shad fishing is not nearly so complicated: You need a pole, very few lures or flies to choose from, and a spot near where the fish are holding.
John’s assessment of his fly-fishing is not an idle boast. There have been many times that I have seen rapier-like fly rods outfish broom-handle-thick Ugly Stiks. To be fair, I have often seen the opposite, as well. Like all else in angling, much depends on the mood the fish are in. One thing is certain, however: Come late April and early May, when spring breaks the shackles of winter, there are few things nicer than sitting in a boat and being rocked to the point of drowsiness by a swaying current, only to be yanked back to the here and now by a pleasing tug on the line.