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Shad Darts By Tim Bennett (TimB)

Published by Tim Bennett [TimB] on 06/01/2015 (4130 reads)
One of the nice things about fly fishing is that it usually isn’t a “crack of dawn” affair. Most hatches happen in the afternoon or evening. You can usually sleep in a little without worrying about missing the best fishing of the day. Fly fishing for hickory shad may be an exception. I usually try to get an early start when they are running.

The guys gathered at the appointed time and we made the trip south to Maryland hoping to catch the first surge of these anadromous fish on their journey up Deer Creek to spawn. We crossed the Maryland border, and then Conowingo Dam, right on schedule and pulled into the parking lot with five minutes to spare. The liquor store was just about to open.
Jim knew the drill, but Bob was new to the shad game and raised an eyebrow. He said he had a few beers with him, enough for all three of us, and that there really was no need to stop. I told him we weren’t there to buy beer. That raised his other eyebrow.

There were three other cars in the lot, all waiting like us. We had a couple of laughs speculating what they might be there for at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning. Two young men in their twenties were anxious to get into the store and tried the door – locked. They peered in the window, looking for signs of movement but gave up and went back to their car. At 8:01 the door opened and we all filed in. One gentleman went right up to the counter to buy lottery tickets. The young men asked the clerk about fishing licenses - the store was also a Maryland fishing license agent. We headed right for the register with the mini bottles of spirits, and a stack of Plano boxes piled high. We were there to buy shad darts.

Bennett shad 1


Shad darts are wedge-shaped jig heads with a sparse bunch of calf tail or similar fur as a tail. The lead heads are painted bright colors. They are a traditional spin fishing lure that sinks quickly and has a darting action on the retrieve. We bought the smallest size the liquor store had in several different color combinations. Anything larger would be too difficult to cast with a fly rod.

Bennett shad 2


Hickory shad (Alosa mediocris) are a member of the herring family and are smaller than their relative the American shad. They typically make their spawning run in April and early May when flows and water temperature trigger the upstream migration. In 1980, Maryland placed a moratorium on the harvest of shad and implemented a restoration program that has increased the number of fish entering the streams to spawn. A catch and release fishery is allowed. A nine foot six weight rod is perfect for the hickories which range from 12-20 inches. They are strong fighters that may leap several times earning them the nickname, “poor man’s tarpon”. That may be a stretch, but they sure are fun.

So you might ask, shad darts with a fly rod? Most fly anglers fish un-weighted flies on a sink tip line for shad. We all had some small marabou streamers with us that would likely catch shad, but with weighted flies we could stick with standard floating lines. But there’s more to it than that. There’s something irreverent about using shad darts with a fly rod. I guess we could be accused of “thumbing our noses” at the perception of fly fishing as a sport for snobs. Surely, the purists would be appalled at our use of darts… from a liquor store no less! That may be partly true, but in reality the darts are pretty damn effective!

Bennett shad 3


We fish the darts casting across stream just above a likely looking run and add a few upstream mends to get the fly… uh, I mean dart, down deep. If the shad are in a biting mood, they usually hit right at the end of the swing. In this technique the fly rod is actually more effective than a spinning rod because of the ability to mend the line to put the dart right in the strike zone.

As a sea run fish, shad seem a little photo sensitive in the shallow creeks and fishing typically slows down in the middle of the day. Some anglers concentrate on morning and evening when the light is less intense. It’s still worth spending the middle of the day on the water. It will give you a chance to figure out the most productive runs as well as witness the spectacle of the spawn. There’s something really cool about standing in what looks like a classic trout stream with thousands of sea run fish swimming by your feet on their reproductive journey. You likely won’t be alone in watching the migration. Osprey, herons, and bald eagles are often spotted in or over the water.



Unusually cold temperatures and high flows through Conowingo Dam delayed and prolonged the run in Deer Creek this year, making the timing difficult to predict. Armed with our darts, we lucked out and caught the first surge of the season and did well our first day. Over the next couple of weeks, some days were great, some slow. The shad run is starting to wind down now and it looks like we’ll have to wait until next spring to continue our annual tradition of an early morning road trip to catch the shad run. Maybe we’ll see you there. Look for us in the liquor store parking lot!

Full hyperlink for MD DNR page on hickory shad:
http://dnr2.maryland.gov/Fisheries/Pa ... x?fishname=Hickory%20Shad
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