Photos by Jay Fleming
Most spouses get sent to the couch after an unresolved argument, or for neglecting household chores. In my house, if I’m riding the sofa it likely means I’ve forgotten to take out the trash for the fifth or sixth week in a row, or fixed the smoker instead of the broken light in the bathroom.
In April, I’m on the couch for an entirely different reason. The hickory shad run is on in Maryland, and having no sense of humor about being woken up before 5 a.m., my loving spouse banishes me from the bedroom. I barely sleep the night before a hickory trip, so the couch and late-night television suit me just fine.
By 3:30 a.m. I’m filling a thermos with black coffee and loading up the SUV with my waders, fishing vest, fly rod and a couple of bags of peanut M&Ms. Interstate 95 is empty as I pass the steaming smokestacks in Baltimore with Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” blasting on the radio. It’s just past 5 a.m. when I find myself bouncing over the pothole-ridden dirt roads alongside Deer Creek, just north of Havre de Grace, Maryland. A tributary of the Susquehanna River, this creek is one of the Chesapeake Bay’s best hickory shad spots.
I rig up in the dark just downstream from a water station and scramble down the rocks to the creek’s edge. I wade out about 10 feet and haul myself up on an isolated rock that’s barely exposed above the water. The sun — and most other anglers — won’t be up for another hour, and I’ve secured the best beat on the creek.
Schools of hickories fresh in from the Bay splash frenetically in a predawn orgy. The first of the day’s songbirds call to one another. I’m the only human being here, and it’s glorious.
A member of the river herring family, hickory shad populate a long stretch of coastal water between Florida and Maine. These anadromous fish spend most of their lives in salt water, returning to freshwater tributaries in early spring to spawn. Once they’ve carried out their romantic obligations, they head back to more open waters. They are acrobatic, energetic fighters that eagerly attack lures and flies; I feel like God tailor-made hickory shad for fly and light-tackle anglers to enjoy.
I got my first whiff of hickories at Joe Bruce’s now-shuttered Fisherman’s Edge fly shop in Catonsville, Maryland, in the early ’90s. Bruce showed me how to cast for them. “You won’t believe how easy it is,” he said. “Find a pool or calmer area on the creek and then cast across stream and let the line belly out downstream. They’ll often hit just as the line rolls out at the bottom of the cast. You’ll catch them until your arms ache.”
He was right — it really is that easy.
Bruce also showed me how to tie a red-and-yellow marabou streamer fly with silver or gold tinsel wrapped around the shank. It’s deadly on hickories. Other fly patterns include hooks wrapped with chartreuse, yellow or hot-pink crystal chenille — with or without small lead eyes — and flies that resemble small Clousers. Most are effective, though sometimes hickories become selective, and a fly change is in order.
On the creek around 6 a.m., the first light illuminates blooming dogwood trees. Though it’s only 10 minutes from the interstate, Deer Creek looks more like a Montana trout stream than a Chesapeake tributary. Rapids pour into pools before spilling into rock-strewn riffles, where great blue herons look for an easy meal.
With just enough light to see — and dozens of other anglers arriving — I send a sinking, 4-weight fly line tipped with 8-pound test and a red-and-yellow shad fly into the pool, then allow the line to belly with the current. No dice. On the second cast, the line bellies and straightens, and a hickory hammers the fly. A silver ballerina vaults from the water like a solid rocket booster before tail-walking at least 10 feet across the pool’s surface and blasting upstream with my line. The fish leaps into the next pool up and comes speeding down-current, right toward me, before repeating the acrobatics and tail-walking.
A few minutes later, the egg-laden hen comes alongside, and I carefully release her back into the pool. By 10 a.m. I’ve caught and released at least 30 hickories, and it’s time to head for the barn, with sore arms and feet numbed by the cold creek waters. As I leave the pool, the beats on the creek shift, and the 15 or so anglers upstream shuffle one by one downstream with military precision.
Hickory and American shad are prized mainly for their roe, though tight regulations that aim to bolster their numbers mean Maryland anglers must release the shad we catch. Commercial anglers net the fish primarily as a bycatch and sell the fat females to wholesalers that harvest the roe. The meat is essentially inedible and filled with fine bones.
The huge shad roe sets that show up in Chesapeake-area supermarkets each spring are an acquired taste. I find it akin to a slab of beef liver that’s been soaked for a week in fish juice. I sauté the roe in butter and put it over an English muffin with a poached egg or two. Other folks like theirs dusted with cornmeal and deep-fried. The good news for the shad? Most people don’t like smelly things at all.
Since the early 2000s, my geographic hickory ring has also included another Susquehanna tributary, Octoraro Creek. My first day there was overcast, which meant the hickories were likely to be active and aggressive. (Light rain makes the fishing even better.) I spent the last hours of that day reeling in and releasing about 20 hens and a dozen bucks.
Another hot hickory spot is about five miles from the White House in Washington, D.C. Fletcher’s Boathouse, where my friend Shawn Kimbro puts in to tangle with Potomac River hickory shad on light tackle, is a much bigger stretch of water than Deer and Octoraro creeks, but it is still plenty productive. An angling author and the director of a sleep lab at a major university, Kimbro often fishes here before heading to work in the city, or when a night shift finishes. He likes a tandem shad-dart rig with white and chartreuse. He looks for slower, deeper water and casts his enticements in that direction. Kimbro has often told me he loses count of how many hickories he catches at Fletcher’s.
By mid-to-late May, the spawn is waning, and I’m eager to get in one last trip. I drive north of Baltimore to Big Gunpowder Falls, which is below the pit beef sandwich joints and adult video stores that line Pulaski Highway. Despite its urban location, the area feels remote and lush, and it can be a productive hickory shad area.
It was two hours before I set a fly into a hickory’s jaws there, and an additional hour before the last shad of the season put on a private dance for me. I hiked back up the trail near Route 40 feeling sorry for myself, knowing it was the last trip of the season.