Anything Fly Fishing

Get Your Shad Fly On!

5 Mins read

a copy of McFee’s The Founding Fish, with a handful of shad flies on the cover.

Sexually mature American shad (Alosa sapidissima) now wait at the mouths of the east coast rivers for the river water temperature to hit that magic mark so they can commence their upstream spawning run.

In his outstanding book The Founding Fish, author John McPhee says American shad are schooling ocean fish. When they come into the river on their run, they follow the deep channels. The run starts in pulses and pods, with mostly males at first. The females coyly delay a couple of weeks. Then they follow.

Shad move upstream at first light. They also move in the afternoon. While the morning bite can be good, generally there is no great rush to get out early. Shad are sensitive to bright light, but the tannin-colored water of many rivers keeps it within their comfort range all day. A civilized afternoon start usually works fine for these fish.

Where I shad fish in Florida’s St. Johns River, the water depth where the shad congregate could be anywhere between four and eight feet. Good current flow is always a requisite. So a well-prepared shad angler will have full sinking, sink-tip, and floating lines.

My son Maxx with a fly-caught shad from Florida’s St. Johns River.

While shad fishermen, like any other kind of fishermen, will disagree about anything, a good strategy involves starting deep. If that doesn’t produce, work your way up higher in the water column until you find the level where the fish are. Catching a mussel every now and again is usually a good thing when shad fishing.

Oceanic shad filter zooplankton (their main food source) from the water with their gillrakers. According to the literature, while on their spawning run they don’t eat anything. Apparently, the fish have not read the literature. While fishing for them in the St. Johns River, many times I have seen them up on the surface chasing small minnows.

We use Gray Ghost streamers tied on number eight hooks when this happens, to good effect. I read an article, by Steve Kantner if memory serves, where he says he uses small floating deerhair flies in a similar situation. Certainly, shad take a variety of small flies and lures while on their spawning run.

Most shad flies are tied on size 4 or 6 hooks. Most are also weighted with lead wire or lead dumbbell eyes, and most are brightly colored, imitating nothing specific in nature. In addition to the examples already listed as exceptions to this, I know of one season where Patrick Phillips had excellent success on shad while using a Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph. Bonefish flies such as the Crazy Charlie and the Puff are known shad producers, as are small Clouser Minnows.

I have never tried using a small spoon fly (such as the Dupre spoonfly) for shad, but suspect they would work well. A 00 size Drone spoon is a standard shad lure in rivers such as the Potomac, Delaware, and Connecticut. We have caught quite a few shad on said lure here in the St. Johns.

Tammy Wilson with a fly-caught shad from the St. Johns.

Let’s take a look at how to tie a few different styles of shad flies. Keep in mind that you can freely substitute colors and materials within these styles. Red and white, chartreuse and white, pink, purple, and orange are all good colors to carry. The fish can be selective about color at times, so having some variety can be rewarding.

When tying shad flies a few design features should be kept in mind. Flies should be kept short to prevent short strikes. In other words, fish will often miss the hook when they swipe at a long fly. Also, many fly fishers feel that a shad fly that rides hook point up works better than a “standard” point down fly. The firmer upper lip supposedly gives better purchase to the hook than the softer lower lip.

“Shad Dart” Fly
This is an easy to tie yet effective fly.
Hook- Mustad 3407 or equivalent, #4 or 6
Eye- lead dumbbell, mini or extra small size
Tail- marabou fibers, color tyer’s choice
Body- wide Mylar tinsel, gold, silver, or pearlescent. I find the braided Mylar easiest to work with.

Head- small or medium chenille, wrapped around the lead eye in the Puff style.

  1. Start the thread, tie in the lead eye.
  2. Tie in the tail. Remember to keep it short.
  3. Tie in the Mylar. Wrap it up to the lead eye and tie it off.
  4. Tie in the chenille behind the lead eye and figure-eight it around the eye. Tie it off.
  5. Whip finish and cement.

Fuzzy Body Shad Fly
This fly may be even easier to tie than the previous one, yet it catches loads of shad.
Hook- Mustad 3407 or equivalent, #4 or 6
Eye- lead dumbbell, mini or extra small size
Tail- marabou fibers, color tyer’s choice
Body- ice chenille, cactus chenille, Estaz, or similar product

  1. Start the thread, tie in the lead eye.
  2. Tie in the tail. Remember to keep it short.
  3. Tie in the Estaz/chenille. Wrap up to or in front of the lead eye and tie off.
  4. Whip finish and cement.

Soft Hackle Shad Fly
Hook- Mustad 3407 or equivalent, #4 or #6
Tail- marabou fibers, color tyer’s choice
Body- floss or fine chenille over fine lead wire
Hackle- hen or webby neck hackle

  1. Start the thread, tie in the lead eye.
  2. Tie in the tail. Remember to keep it short.
  3. Tie in the wire and the floss. Wrap the wire towards the eye of the hook, leaving plenty of room for the hackle and head. Tie off the wire. Wrap the floss/chenille up to the same point and tie it off.
  4. Tie in the butt of the hackle feather. Take two or three wraps of the feather around the hook, then tie it off. Make sure the hackle fibers point towards the tail of the fly.
  5. Whip finish and cement.

Remember while you’re fishing, if you’re not hitting the bottom and catching a mussel occasionally you’re not fishing deep enough.

It helps to have a variety of flies. Orange and white, red and white, chartreuse and white, and purple and white could be considered a minimum kit for starters.

Shad can be fussy about flies and it is not uncommon for them to be the most aggressive immediately after changing fly color. Usually, if you’re not getting hits, you’re either not in the right spot, not down deep enough, or not using the right color.

The wet fly swing is the most effective way to fish for shad. Throw your line across the stream at about a 90-degree angle and let the fly sink and swing until it is hanging down below you. Once the fly is below you, wait 20 to 30 seconds before starting to strip. Shad will often take the fly on the dangle.

Rodney Smith and my son Maxx with a fly-caught shad double from Florida’s St. Johns River.

Shad frequently strike the fly with a vengeance and it is easy to overreact and set the hook too hard. That will rip the fly through the thin membrane around the mouth. Due to the force of the strike, shad usually hook themselves. You’ll know when a fish is on and from that point on, just play them. Applying too much pressure often results in a lost fish.

And of course, you can’t catch fish unless you get out there and try. So make some time to get out on your local river and try your hand at catching some American shad this year.

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