The Complete Guide to Fly Fishing For Shad

If there’s one thing I love doing, it’s fly fishing for shad because of the challenge it gives me. Furthermore, shad is easily available in my area, though you will still need to bring your a-game when hooking one!

With that in mind, beginners and advanced fly fishers alike can catch shad, as long as they know the techniques and methods to follow. But where can you start and how?

Read on as I show you all about fly fishing for shad and my personal experience to help you get successful catches!

fly fishing for shad

Why Catch Shad?

Before I get into how you can go fly fishing for shad, what is the shad, and why are they so popular? A lot of us were raised to fly fish for trout, salmon, or steelhead. After all, these were the more popular and tasty fish species that were considered “classics” or “tradition” to catch!

Not that shad isn’t as delicious, they just weren’t as well-known until fly fishing started to expand, as well as the way we catch fish! And speaking of delicious, another reason why you should catch shad is that its fresh flesh is great to eat, as long as you cook and eat them fresh rather than frozen (like most species).

The Shad or the American Shad were usually overlooked as a dish species for fly fishing. This is also why many fly fishers are now aiming for them, as they may be more available because they are less targeted! These fish species get even more appealing to catch, as the shad population is very healthy and only growing from here on out.

For instance, the Columbia River in Oregon has 2 million shads annually, and the Delaware River has about 300 miles of shad habitat, even more!

What to Know About the Shad

Here are some quick facts about the shad to know about, which can help you with your fly fishing methods!

Two Types of Shad

There are two main types of shad, which are the Hickory or American shad. While you can catch both these types of shad the similar ways, they have small differences in their body.

The American Shad, known as a common shad, has an average size of 16 to 24 inches and weighs between 1 to 8 pounds. When it has its mouth closed, the tip of its lower jaw can fit into a notch in its upper jaw. It also has just one row of dark spots, which extend backward from its rear edge of gill covers.

As for the Hickory Shad, also known as Hick or Taylor Shad, it’s fairly smaller and has a length of 15 to 17 inches, weighing 1 to 2 pounds. When its mouth is closed, its lower jaw would extend slightly beyond its upper. It would also show rows of smaller dark spots on its body, located behind its gill covers.

Both species also share similar field marks, such as a deep and slab-sided body with large eyes, large and thin scales, as well as smooth and boney scale-less heads. They have no visible lateral line or adipose fin, with the tail deeply forked in both lobes with an equal length.

With all that said, note that the size varies depending on the gender and location. Males weigh less than females, and some shad species can be smaller in certain states compared to others.

Migrating Season

The Shad are an anadromous fish species, which can migrate from freshwater to saltwater, then go back again for spawning season. Migration (or spawn) would vary depending on the location and water temperature. The further south you are, the earlier spawn season begins.

For example, in St. Johns River in Florida, spawning season can begin as early as November. Up north in the Roanoke, the spawning season usually begins in March. When you go further up north, spawn season may not begin until June, particularly when you’re around the west coast.

When spawn season does begin in your area for shad, this is the optimum time to go fly fishing for them! This is because they are quite aggressive and will be out in schools during this time.

But with their aggressiveness comes a risk. That’s why you need to be prepared with strong equipment, as they are known to rip flies on a run, sending both you and your reel screaming!

When to Fish For Shad

The best time you can fish for shad is during low light conditions, typically early morning or overcast days. However, the evening is when you produce even fewer strikes.

The reason behind the time is because shad are light sensitive. But not to worry, because during sunny days, they can adjust to the light once midday arrives.

With that said, the best time to fish is still early in the morning. Simply vary the sink rates and depths until you can find shad, then don’t leave your spot until you get a bite and catch some!

Feeding Habits and Where to Find Shad

Shad don’t usually actively feed inland, but this can depend on the location. Note that the longer shad live in freshwater, the less interested are they in food, and they would return to the oceans after spawning, which is also a popular place to fly fish for them.

The shad’s digestive tract remains intact after the spawning season. Though they may be less interested in food, they still strike and bite, usually out of aggression, instinct, curiosity, or even just plain hunger for some shad.

The shad would feed in schools in the oceans and then move again in schools upriver. Usually, they set up camp below rapids, in seams, or would move at once.

Depending on where you are from, shad are usually found on the sandy bottoms of clear waters. You can also find them closer to reefs and any rocky ledges where there are foamy waters.

What Do Shad Eat?

When in the ocean, the primary food source of shad is plankton. But, would also consume other common food sources.

Because shad are born in freshwater, food sources there won’t be foreign to them. Regardless, most fly fishers use bright-colored patterns that move a LOT.

Many fly fishers use full sinking lines with extra fast sinking tips and/or shooting heads. You can also try using shad flies, as well as bonefish flies, trout nymphs, wooly buggers, and the like.

Fly Fishing Presentations

After various trips and fly fishing for shad, there are a lot of things and techniques I learned. Many of these techniques have helped me learn about what shad want to see and what they would bite the most.

Here are the five techniques that work effectively when you use a 10ft 7ips sink-tip versileader:

1. The Swing

The wet fly swing is the most effective technique when fly fishing for shad. This is the classic technique fly fishers use for steelhead.

When performing this technique, you just need to cast your sink-tip straight to the middle of the river, or at 45-degree angles. Then, mend so you can sink the tip, swinging it across currents. You can impart motion if nothing works, which is a helpful way to get a catch.

Allow the fly to stay down for about 15 seconds at the end of every cast made. Prepare for them to grab at the end of your swing, and they will hit hard. So be ready while staying calm, as they hook themselves and it’s just up to you to reel them in!

I like this presentation, which ensures more success. It works best when you know shad are hitting whatever gets in their way.

2. The Yo-Yo

This is another technique that you can use before “the seven minutes in heaven” begin, which is when shad hit anything getting in their way. It is the technique you use before you would use the wet fly swing. This is because shad need some enticing before they begin getting aggressive and take a bite at whatever is there!

When doing this technique, you will need to perform the wet fly swing. As you do the wet fly swing, hold your fly line, with the line holding your fingers, which is the hand you reel with. After that, pull the line towards you, allowing the current to pick it up and pull two you. Let the current pick it up again and repeat.

This presentation would yo-yo your fly, which can get you some bites!

3. The Strip

Some days, shad just want the fast and aggressive strip as you swing. When doing this presentation, you just need to change how many lines you strip in, making it varied.

Note that you may catch other fish species using this presentation, particularly the striped bass. While the strip is the least productive presentation, it can get you some fish if ever none of the other techniques seem to work.

4. The Jig

This is another effective technique that’s passive, similar to the classic swing but would add a bit of a kick to entice the lethargic shad.

As you perform the wet fly swing, snap your rod’s tip up and down. You will feel a grab usually at the end of your swing, or when in-between the snap.

When performing this technique, I recommend using a jig during the hand-down, which is deadly as shad would hold near banks.

5. Change Your Flies Often

What if nothing else seems to work? This isn’t a technique but a helpful tip if shad would ignore any of your presentations. It’s best to change up your pattern, as shad would ignore you for unknown reasons.

This happened to me before, and after 20 minutes without nibbles, I changed flies and got more grabs and bites! When something like this happens to you too, change your flies now and then to experiment and figure out the pattern and/or color they are more likely to grab at.

My Experience Fly Fishing For Shad

Now that you’re familiar with what the shad is like, as well as the presentations many of us fly fishers use, let’s get into my experience. This can help you gain insight on what to expect and what you can do when fly fishing for shad.

When fly fishing for shad, the kit you need is pretty minimal, as all you need is your fly rod. I use a 9wt for shore break, a saltwater reel holding an intermediate or floating line, as well as a stripping basket, which ensures that the line won’t get tangled.

As for the fly selection, I use Clousers, Charlies, as well as deceivers, though most shad would bite at any saltwater fly. However, they do have sharp teeth and can bite through any monofilament line easily, which is why I recommend using steel trace.

I don’t use steel wire, as they don’t look natural as the fly is stripped through waters. I prefer using fluorocarbon and replace after catching a few fish and noticing any wear and tear. Your tippet won’t require replacement too many times.

You are better off catching them in cleaner and deeper waters using a fast and erratic retrieve. I like to fish from rocky outcrops rather than the shoreline, which would be crowded with locals. Plus, outcrops have me access clean and deep waters!

Wrapping It Up

When you’re in an area where shad is popular, take the opportunity to go fly fishing to show off your catch and bring home good meat! Remember that besides the right technique and tips, you’ll also need patience and quality equipment. All the effort and investment will pay off as you catch a lot of shad and get more opportunities to catch a lot of other fish species!

I hope that this article on fly fishing for shad helped you out. So don’t wait any longer and utilize these tips and information to start catching shad successfully now.

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