Sunday, April 1, 2012

Catching the shad run...

Potomac River hickory shad
It's one of those fishing experiences that feels, at first, obligatory. Like a trip to the dentist ... that clean-teeth feeling is wonderful, and while the experience isn't usually that awful, it's not something you really look forward to.

That about sums up the appeal of the prospect of shad fishing on the Potomac River for me. I'd seen the pictures of the red Fletcher's row boats lined up--each within casting range of another--along the current seem just off the dock. I'd seen the photos of all the lines in the water. Of all those people.

I wanted to catch a shad--and I was in Washington for work--but I wasn't too excited about becoming part of this mass of humanity on the Nation's River to do it. But, in order to check the shad off my list, off to the dentist I went.

And, after a fashion, I got my teeth cleaned.

Shad are remarkable fish. The hickory shad and, in lesser numbers, the American shad, are anadromous herring, related to such prized game fish as tarpon. John McPhee wrote about American shad, which are bigger than hickories and a protected fish species in the United States, in his book "Founding Fish." For years, I've heard from D.C.-based colleagues of the spring shad run up the Potomac, and the few weeks each spring they devote to this storied gamefish.

Victim of a shad dart
I think, perhaps, my interest in shad is also what initially turned me off to the idea of chasing them. They run up the Potomac River, right through Washington, past monuments and under bridges. They run in such numbers, anglers say, that, when they're "on," it's an every-cast proposition. But, I'm a confirmed creek-freak... a backcountry fly fisher who truly doesn't like much company when I fish. Fishing "in town" isn't my thing, every-cast proposition or not.

Nevertheless, the idea of thousands of fish running up the Potomac interests me. Through town, the river supplements the unique scenery of the nation's capital--it runs under Memorial Bridge, not too far from the Lincoln Memorial, and under Key Bridge, right past Georgetown.

It separates my favorite place in Washington--Roosevelt Island--from Arlington, Va.

JT Griffin of The Bonefish Flat, joins the author for a
double hook-up on the Potomac
But, beyond the pretty pictures, my perspective of the Potomac through Washington wasn't exactly flattering. One day earlier this winter, as I stood on the banks of Roosevelt Island admiring the flotsam that had managed to wash ashore, I came the realization that this river, while perhaps in a better state than it was thirty or forty years ago (we can likely thank clean water legislation for that) isn't treated too kindly by the folks along its course.

It's not a complete disaster. In its upper reaches in West Virginia, the Potomac is a terrific smallmouth bass river. Higher up, some of its tributaries still hold native brook trout. But the closer it gets to its terminus in Chesapeake Bay, the more tainted the river's waters become. It's marred by chemical pollutants, excessive nutrient pollution that spawns viral algae blooms and the pollution that simply runs into it from paved surfaces, like highways and parking lots. And that's not counting the overlows from municipal sewage treatment plants.

Chris Anderson of Trout Unlimited with fat hickory
Finally, non-native and carniverous fish now call the river home, throwing another wrench in the engine working to clean this irreplaceable resource up. Snakeheads, anyone?

So, when the chance to finally add shad to my list (oh, come on ... who doesn't have a list?) of fly rod conquests, I took it. I climbed into a Fletcher's row boat with two D.C.-based friends and hit the river ... with everybody else.

It took a bit of time, and some tackle adjustments, but I finally caught my first shad, an average hickory that might have stretched the tape to 14 inches. Might have.

And when one came to hand, they started to come in bunches. Between three of us, we caught probably three dozen fish in a few hours' time on the river. And with each fish boated, my opinion of the experience--and of the river itself--softened just a bit.

First, the life on the river, with military helicopters cruising its course, and jets from DCA roaring to altitude overhead, is pretty impressive. Cormorants, presumably on the water for the same reason I was, camped in the greening trees along the river's bank. Ospreys cruised the river, and occasionally lifted fish from the water. We saw a bald eagle.

The double
Second, shad are worthy game fish. They gave us all we wanted on 6-weight rods equipped with sink-tip lines and armed with flies the locals call "shad darts." They were fun. Really fun.

Finally, I was reminded that fishing with people--at least people you like--is an experience in and of itself. Conversation fills the gaps between fish. And having a passion for fly fishing helps with that conversation. Three of us spent a great afternoon on the Nation's River, a resource that needs our help if our kids are to be fortunate enough to enjoy the same experience years from now.

My teeth are clean. And I'm looking forward to the next visit to the dentist.


  1. Chris- John McPhee has put shad firmly on my list. I have a copy of that book. I'm glad you got out there and got some, flotsam or not. JT

  2. Hey man... it was a lot of fun. More than I expected, for sure. Neat little diversion if you find yourself in DC in March/April...

  3. There's a lot of history that goes with those fish. I think that shad fishing would be a fun, historic excursion. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I caught an American shad on a killer bug with my tenkara rod last spring and it was a blast I look forward to repeating that feat again this year.

  5. American shad on a Tenkara... THAT would be a sweet fight!

  6. My brother caught a hickory shad once while striper fishing in Long Island Sound. It jumped to high hell. John McPhee's book is awesome.

  7. It was a lot of fun, Pete... A LOT of fun.