Every year at this time there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about shad fishing – and shad in general – and I often have to field a million questions like: What the heck is a shad? and Shad are just small baitfish…why would anybody fish for those things? So, I figured it was time to clear a few things up. With that in mind, here’s my graduate crash course on shad and shad fishing. You will not be tested.
Baitfish vs. Gamefish
The first thing we need to set straight is there are several types of shad. In California, we have two varieties: threadfin and American and this is where most of the misunderstanding begins. Threadfin shad are small baitfish that live in most of our lakes and reservoirs and rarely top 4 inches. American shad, on the other hand, run anywhere from 2 to 7 pounds and spend their lives in the ocean and then come up freshwater streams to spawn in the spring of each year. Aside from the size difference, the two species look similar to one another – deep bodies, big eyes, large silver scales and forked tails. Neither is native to the West Coast.
American shad are native to the East Coast and first made the trip west on the newly-completed transcontinental railroad in 1871. An immensely popular fish along the eastern seaboard, they were transported across the country in milk jugs by Seth Green of the New York Fish and Game Commission. He dumped 10,000 little shad into the Sacramento River south of Redding and hoped for the best.
The shad took well to their new digs and over the next 20 years, they established strong spawning runs on the Sacramento, Feather, American, Yuba, San Joaquin and Mokelumne rivers. They also spread out up the coast and found their way into the Russian, Eel and Klamath rivers and some streams in Southern Oregon as well. Now days, the Columbia River on the Washington-Oregon border hosts the world’s largest run of American shad.
The Spawn is On
As I noted earlier, American shad spend 2-3 years in the ocean and then swim up freshwater streams to spawn. On the West Coast, the shad run usually takes place anywhere from early April until late July. While a certain percentage of shad die after spawning like salmon do, some are able to make the downstream trek back to the Pacific.
When shad enter freshwater, they often do so by the tens of thousands. Their numbers, combined with their well-documented ability to bend rods and make reels scream, have made shad a very popular gamefish.
In the ocean, American shad are plankton eaters and they don’t feed when they hit freshwater. They are, however, a curious lot and will happily strike a variety of lures. Most anglers throw small red/white lead head shad darts at them or 1/32-ounce curly-tailed jigs in colors like hot pink or chartreuse.
The scientific name for American Shad is alosa sapidissim, which translated means “most savory.” They are an important food fish in their native range (the East Coast), but West Coasters have not yet taken too whole-heartedly to the concept of “shad is food.” I’ve tasted smoked shad and it was okay – though you could probably also smoke a old Nike and make it edible. The main problem with shad is they are full of fine bones. Supposedly, pressure-cooking them helps to dissolve some of the bones, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Shad roe is also a popular delicacy, though I think I’ll stick to chicken eggs, thanks.
So, there you have it: the life and times of the American shad in a nutshell. Hope that helps!